Netanyahu opponents grapple to form cabinet before deadline

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, a secular centrist, and religious nationalist Naftali Bennett were locked in talks late into the night Monday on the terms of a "change alliance" to unseat the premier ahead of a Wednesday midnight deadline.

FILE: Israel's former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, to deliver a political statement in Jerusalem, on 30 May 2021. Picture: Yonatan Sindel/AFP

JERUSALEM - Israeli politicians worked against the clock on Tuesday to overcome final hurdles to building a coalition that would end the record rule of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, a secular centrist, and religious nationalist Naftali Bennett were locked in talks late into the night Monday on the terms of a "change alliance" to unseat the premier ahead of a Wednesday midnight deadline.

"The coalition negotiation team sat all night and made progress toward creating a unity government," a Bennett spokesman said in a statement.

He said Bennett, who heads the Yamina party, would meet Lapid - leader of the Yesh Atid party - again in the afternoon.

The discussions come as Israel's longest-serving premier is on trial on criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust while in office, accusations he denies.

Former TV anchor Lapid inched closer to success Sunday when he and tech millionaire Bennett overcame their sharp political differences and publicly agreed to join a "national unity government" in which both would serve as premier, with Bennett going first.

Lapid was tasked with forming a government after Netanyahu failed to do so following Israel's fourth inconclusive election in less than two years.

'COMPROMISES'

Efforts to form a new government without Netanyahu have picked up speed after an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on May 21 halted 11 days of hostilities with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

They have left the 71-year-old prime minister, who heads the right-wing Likud party, scrambling to scupper the new alliance against him.

Lawyers for the Likud on Tuesday tried to hobble the emerging coalition by challenging Bennett's right to serve first as prime minister when Lapid was charged with forming the government.

But the legal adviser to Israel's president knocked down the challenge.

Netanyahu, in power for 12 straight years after an earlier three-year term, had warned on Sunday of "a left-wing government dangerous to the state of Israel".

Lapid said Monday that obstacles remained to build the diverse coalition necessary to unseat the premier, but encouraged his party to be upbeat.

"That's our first test - to see if we can find smart compromises in the coming days to achieve the greater goal."

ARAB ISRAELI PARTIES

Lapid, 57, is seeking to cobble together an unlikely alliance including Bennett, a supporter of Jewish settlements in the Israel-occupied West Bank, as well as Arab-Israeli lawmakers.

In order to build such an anti-Netanyahu bloc, he must sign individual agreements with seven parties, whose members would then vote in parliament to confirm their coalition.

They include the hawkish New Hope party of Netanyahu's former ally Gideon Saar and right-wing secular nationalist Avigdor Lieberman's pro-settlement Yisrael Beitenu party.

The centrist Blue and White party of Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the historically powerful centre-left Labour party, and the dovish Meretz party would also join.

But to achieve the required 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the emerging alliance still needs the backing of four more lawmakers.

Lapid is counting on parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, which have not yet announced their intentions.

Despite the votes stacking up against him, it is too early to count out the wily Netanyahu, political scientist Jonathan Rynhold of Bar Ilan University has said.

"It's never done until it's done, particularly because, even if they (the opposition) got by far the best hand, Bibi is the best card player by miles, you can't count him out."

If Lapid fails to muster a majority, and lawmakers cannot agree on another candidate for prime minister, Israelis will return, yet again, to the polls.

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