Israel: Opposition leader Yair Lapid tells president he can form government

Jerusalem: Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid said late Wednesday he had succeeded in forming a coalition to end the rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest serving leader.

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Lapid’s announcement came in the final hour before a midnight deadline, after he had hammered out deals with a diverse group of ideological rivals who banded together to oust the right-wing premier.

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“Lapid informed the president of the state of Israel… that he has succeeded in forming a government,” his party said in a statement.

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The right-wing nationalist tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, 49, would serve first as prime minister in a rotation deal, before Lapid takes over in two years.

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“This government will work to serve all the citizens of Israel including those who aren’t members of it, will respect those who oppose it, and do everything in its power to unite all parts of Israeli society,” Lapid told Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin in a phone call.

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The parties had been locked in days of gruelling talks in a hotel near Tel Aviv before the alliance was formalised.

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Provided the coalition is approved by Israel’s 120-member parliament, it will end 12 straight years of rule by Israel’s longest-ruling premier.

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In front of the hotel where the negotiations were taking place, hundreds of demonstrators, both in favour and opposed to the “coalition of change”, rallied under a strong police presence.

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Down to the wire

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Lapid, a former television presenter who heads the secular centrist party Yesh Atid, last Sunday won the crucial support of Bennett, head of the Yamina “Rightward” party.

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To build the anti-Netanyahu bloc, Lapid had to sign individual agreements with seven parties.

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

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Also part of the alliance is the centrist Blue and White party of Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the historically powerful Labour party and the dovish Meretz party.

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The leader of the Arab Israeli Islamic conservative party Raam, Mansour Abbas, late Wednesday agreed to join the coalition because it won budget allocations and pledges to help fight crime in Israel’s 20 percent minority of Palestinian descent.

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“I just signed an agreement with Yair Lapid so that he can declare that he can form a government after reaching… agreements on various issues that serve the interest of Arab society,” he said.

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Although other Arab parties supported the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin from outside his coalition in the 1990s, Abbas was the first Arab politician in Israel to openly bargain for a role in the coalition, said political analyst Afif Abu Much.

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Abu Much noted that lawmakers with other parties representing Arab citizens of Israel announced they would oppose the government headed by Bennett.

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‘Fraud of century’

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Lapid was tasked with forming a government by Rivlin after Netanyahu again failed to put together his own coalition following March elections, the fourth vote in less than two years.

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In a separate political development, the Knesset voted Wednesday on Rivlin’s successor and elected Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the Labour party, as the country’s 11th president, due to take office next month.

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Netanyahu wished Herzog “good luck” and Herzog, the prime minister’s one-time opponent, replied: “I’ll be happy to work with every government, no matter the leader.”

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“Let’s not get into it now,” Netanyahu replied.

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Israel’s latest political turmoil adds to the woes of Netanyahu, 71, who is on trial for criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust while in office – accusations he denies.

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If he loses power, he will not be able to push through changes to basic laws that could give him immunity, and will lose control over certain justice ministry nominations.

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The premier and leader of the conservative Likud party, who served an earlier three-year term in the 1990s, has long been the dominant figure of Israeli politics and was close to former US president Donald Trump.

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Netanyahu clinched historic normalisation agreements with four Arab states, and unrolled a world-beating Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

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But he has not engaged in substantive peace talks with the Palestinians, who have been angered by Israel’s deepening control of areas they eye for a future state.

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Israel’s latest political turmoil follows weeks of escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, which spiralled into an 11-day exchange of rocket fire from Gaza and devastating Israeli air strikes last month.

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Netanyahu on Sunday defiantly condemned the alliance against him as opportunistic and “the fraud of the century”, warning it would result in “a left-wing government dangerous to the state of Israel”.

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