Israeli politicians battling to unseat veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are racing against the clock on the final day of talks to build a governing coalition comprised of bitter ideological rivals.
They have until a minute before midnight (20:59 GMT) on Wednesday to cobble together an administration that would end 12 years of rule by Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The high-stakes push is led by former TV presenter Yair Lapid, a secular centrist, who on Sunday won the crucial support of right-wing religious nationalist Naftali Bennett, a tech multi-millionaire.
Lapid is planning to announce by 11:00am (08:00 GMT) on Wednesday that he can form a government, Israeli Channel 12 news reported late on Tuesday.
The Times of Israel reported Lapid’s goal is to have the Knesset speaker schedule a vote to swear in the new coalition on June 9.
To reach a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Lapid and Bennett’s unlikely alliance would also have to include other left- and right-wing parties – and would probably need the support of parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.
That would result in a government riven by deep ideological differences on flashpoint issues such as illegal Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the role of religion in politics.
Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, was tasked with forming a government by President Reuven Rivlin after Netanyahu again failed to win a majority following Israel’s fourth inconclusive election in less than two years.
Lapid has reportedly agreed to allow Bennett, who heads the Yamina party, to serve first as a rotating prime minister in a power-sharing agreement, before taking over halfway through their term.
On Wednesday, the Knesset will also choose the country’s next president, a largely figurehead position that is meant to serve as the nation’s moral compass and promote unity.
Israel’s latest political turmoil adds to the woes of Netanyahu, who is on trial for criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust while in office – accusations he denies.
It also follows the latest flare-up of fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in the besieged Gaza Strip, which ended after 11 days of deadly violence with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on May 21.
The Israeli bombardment killed at least 253 Palestinians in Gaza. At least 12 people were killed in Israel by rockets fired by armed groups in Gaza.
Netanyahu, who served an earlier three-year term in the 1990s, had warned on Sunday of “a left-wing government dangerous to the state of Israel”.
The prime minister, who heads the right-wing Likud party and has developed a reputation as a wily political operator, was scrambling to scupper the new alliance.
Likud’s lawyers tried to hobble the emerging coalition by challenging Bennett’s right to serve first as prime minister, given that it was Lapid who was charged with forming the government.
But the legal adviser to Israel’s president knocked down the challenge. Opponents of the possible alternative government meanwhile accused Bennett and his right-wing partners of betraying their voters.
Spokesmen for both Lapid and Bennett confirmed to bioreports news agency that the two have received additional security protection.
Lapid said Monday that obstacles remained to build the coalition, but added: “That’s our first test – to see if we can find smart compromises in the coming days to achieve the greater goal.”
In order to build the anti-Netanyahu bloc, Lapid 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 Labor party and the dovish Meretz party would also join.
Palestinian party support?
If those parties sign on, the emerging alliance would still need the backing of four more legislators.
To cross the threshold, Lapid is counting on parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Entering a hotel near Tel Aviv for negotiations earlier on Tuesday, Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List, which has four seats, said that his party would be part of the coalition, Israeli media reported.
Abbas’ party, which split from the Joint List coalition comprised mostly of Palestinian parties, is focusing on finalising agreements with Yamina, and its number two, Ayelet Shaked, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
“Shaked is expected to be appointed interior minister in the future government, and Abbas hopes to appoint a lawmaker from his party as her deputy,” Haaretz reported.
Abbas has voiced openness to any arrangement that improves living conditions for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Political analyst Afif Abu Much said on Tuesday that Abbas would not pursue ministerial posts, but wanted chairmanship of two parliament committees and budgets for Palestinian communities.
He also aimed to revoke a law that has hardened penalties for illegal construction, which is seen to affect Palestinian communities disproportionately.
Abbas told reporters on Tuesday that negotiations appeared to be heading “in a good direction” but also said: “Until it’s finished, nothing is finished.”
Meanwhile, Hadash, one of the three parties in the Joint List coalition said on Tuesday that its three lawmakers will vote against the proposed government, Israeli media reported.
Balad, another party in the Joint List, with only one lawmaker in the Knesset also said that it will vote against the government, Haaretz reported.
Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, the third Joint List member with two lawmakers has yet to announce a decision.
If Lapid fails to muster a majority, and lawmakers cannot agree on another candidate for prime minister, Israelis could return, yet again, to the polls.