An extreme right-wing leader is on his way to lead an anti-Netanyahu coalition with partners ranging from left-wing parties to Joint Arab List.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, is facing the most potent political challenge of his lifetime, which is likely to push his Likud party into the opposition.
From some parts of the judiciary to media organisations, many powerful institutions of the country are eager to see Netanyahu lose grip on power.
Since the Likud premier ruled the country for 12 years, the "Netanyahu fatigue" combined with multiple corruption charges continue to hurt his prospects for another term.
Netanyahu's fall from grace will become certain if Israel’s far-right leader, Naftali Bennett, who is more right-wing than Netanyahu, accepts to enter a large coalition with the country’s left-wing and centrist parties including the Joint List, which is a political bloc of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“The Israeli society is so polarized against Netanyahu, and its body politic is so poisonous that the difference between left and right in the formation of the government is now blurred,” says Sami al Arian, a prominent Palestinian-American academic.
But the prospect of Bennett becoming the next prime minister is alarming for many regional experts since his Yamina party commands only seven seats out of 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Out of seven, six members support his bid to join the anti-Netanyahu political league.
“It would be unprecedented in Israeli politics (or any politics for that matter) when the head of a party with only 6 seats out of 120 (5 percent of Knesset members) would become prime minister. This fact only solidifies the notion that Israeli politics have become dysfunctional and fractured,” Arian tells TRT World.
“He [Bennett] demonstrated a rare ability – unprecedented in Israel’s political history – to exploit opportunities and leverage his political power, managing to leap from the status of a loser who didn’t even win enough votes to enter the Knesset in 2019 to almost being prime minister,” wrote Aluf Benn, a columnist at Haaretz.
While the Israeli right-wing parties have accumulated over 70 seats in the 120-member Knesset, they have failed to form a stable government after four inconclusive elections in two years.
“Of course there are many causes for that. But the main reason is Netanyahu,” Arian says. Because he is such a 'polarizing, deceptive, and manipulative' politician, many of his former partners on the right and extreme right like Avigdor Lieberman, Gideon Sa'er and Bennett "hate him so much that they are willing to work with other parties, which they disagree with on most issues just so they could get rid of him,” the professor adds.
The three far-right leaders agree with most of Netanyahu's policies: the expansion of illegal settlements, Greater Israel, Judaisation of Jerusalem and denial of Palestinian rights. They also defend the continuation of the brutal siege of Gaza.
While Western leaders, primarily US President Joe Biden, have shown some willingness to see a new leadership other than Netanyahu's, hoping that his successor may bring some degree of calm and stability across the turbulent region, Bennett might be the wrong person to pin such hopes on.
“Netanyahu's likely replacement, Bennett, will not help to improve Israel's image. He's a right-wing, pro-settler ideologue who believes in Jewish supremacy and the denial of equal rights for Palestinians,” says Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and author, who was based in East Jerusalem from 2016 to 2020.
“Bennett will continue Israel's right-wing drift towards an even more militarised and racist nation-state," Loewenstein tells TRT World.
The US political thinking
Matthew Bryza, a former American ambassador to Azerbaijan, who worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past, thinks that Washington likes to see an Israeli government, which is “less confrontational toward the Palestinian population”.
“A government that would allow the political situation between Israel and Palestine to quiet down and avoid military conflict with Gaza authorities under Hamas,” Bryza tells TRT World.
“The Biden administration is very much against Hamas and will never work with it. But similarly, the Biden administration does not want to see continuing high tensions and military clashes between the government of Israel and Hamas authorities,” Bryza observes.
The Biden administration also wants this government to enable “the US to move forward” with other foreign “agenda items” like revitalising the Iran nuclear deal and “not get worried about another round of violence” across Israel and Palestine, according to Bryza.
But Netanyahu has recently followed the exact reverse direction, escalating tensions with Palestinians by forcing them out of their homes in centuries-old neighbourhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan in the occupied East Jerusalem. Netanyahu also attacked Gaza, seeing an all-out assault over the Palestinian enclave as an exit ticket from his political troubles.
He was characteristically unapologetic about his political behaviour during TV appearances on Sunday, accusing Washington of his falling down and comparing the Biden administration to Iran and Hamas and “depicting all three as threats to Israel”, according to Benn, the Israeli writer.
But there is no direct evidence, suggesting that the Biden administration has anything to do with Netanyahu’s fall.
“Many prominent Democrats in the US have expressed disdain or contempt for Netanyahu and will be happy when he's gone from office. However at this stage, there's no evidence that anybody in Washington pressured Netanyahu's rivals to form a working coalition and unseat him,” says Loewenstein.
“Netanyahu's corruption trial and other controversies, including his love affair with former US President Donald Trump, have deeply unsettled many supporters of Israel in the West, worried that the Jewish state's image is being tarnished,” he adds.
Despite Netanyahu’s accusations, like Loewenstein, Bryza also does not see any real evidence that the Biden administration is behind the Israeli leader’s political humiliation.
“I don’t see any US role in Netanyahu’s fall. He engineered his own criminal problems. He is the one who has been in power in the last 12 years. He is the one who is not able to form a government,” Bryza says.
But he also views that “someone cannot rise in Israeli politics if opposed by the United States. I think it’s extremely difficult if [he/she] is not favored by the US or [she/he] is seen as being against the US.” At the same time, the US will not play a role “to abstract someone’s political career in Israel”, he adds.
Bennet’s coming to power “could create some challenges” for the US, Israel and the general stability of the region since he has taken extreme far-right positions compared to Netanyahu, the American diplomat says.
“On the other hand, if they form a government, the government has to range all across the political spectrum from Bennet on the far-right to socialists on the far-left and everything in between including an Arab-Israeli party that might formally not join the coalition but would pledge its support, to therefore allow the government to obtain 61 votes it needs to pass legislation at the Knesset,” he concludes.