Israel's odd couple: rivals who could topple Netanyahu together

·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Lapid leave after a joint news conference in Jerusalem

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - One is a centre-left avowed secularist who says the Palestinians should get a state. The other is a firebrand of the religious hard right who wants to annex most of the occupied West Bank. Meet the men from Israel's opposite political poles who could topple Benjamin Netanyahu.

If Israel's longest serving prime minister is brought down after four inconclusive elections in two years, it will not be because his opponents rallied the nation behind a new political programme. It will be because two men who agree on little else have decided to make a deal.

After Netanyahu failed to meet a deadline to assemble a coalition, the mandate to form a government passed this week to Yair Lapid, 57, a telegenic former TV news anchor who writes pop songs and thrillers, and speaks as the voice of Israel's secular middle class.

But the only way he can form a government is if he wins support from his antithesis, Naftali Bennett, 49, a pugnacious former army commando turned tech millionaire and darling of the religious settler movement.

Lapid, who has 28 days to form a coalition, is expected to offer Bennett the chance to take the first turn as prime minister under a rotation agreement that would let Lapid take charge later. That would match an offer Netanyahu already made to Bennett, which Bennett has so far rejected.

"MY BROTHER"

Despite drawing their support from opposing political camps, Lapid and Bennett have maintained warm personal relations since they both stormed into politics in 2013 as voices of a new generation and muscled their way into Netanyahu's coalition.

Both have been known to take a guitar on stage to belt out a folk tune. When they served together briefly in Netanyahu's cabinet, they called each other "my brother".

Lapid never returned to Netanyahu's government after a short stint as finance minister. Bennett has been back in two other roles as Netanyahu has pushed further right.

The March 23 election demonstrated how polarised Israel's electorate is over Netanyahu.

He is adored by his conservative base even while on trial for corruption - he denies all wrongdoing. But his Likud party lost seats despite a campaign that highlighted Netanyahu's role in Israel's world-beating COVID-19 vaccination rollout.

"We need a government that will reflect the fact that we don't hate one another. A government in which left, right and centre will work together to tackle the economic and security challenges we face," Lapid said on Wednesday, promoting himself as a unifying figure.

Lapid has said he will seek a coalition with a patchwork of parties from across the political spectrum, with the explicit aim of removing Netanyahu once and for all.

But that commitment could be tested by Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide whose right-wing supporters share many of the prime minister's aims. While he speaks often about a fresh start, Bennett has never explicitly said Netanyahu must go.

Although not a settler himself, he strongly backs the agenda of Jews who live on West Bank land, saying he would grant Palestinians wide autonomy but never an independent state.

But unlike some of his former allies on the religious right, Bennett is comparatively liberal on issues such as gay rights and the relationship between religion and the state, areas in which he could find common ground with Lapid.

Bennett's post-election message of unity and healing has echoed that of Lapid. A fifth divisive election, he said, would "wreck the country".

Any "unity government" would have to avoid making substantive policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bennett has said, instead focusing on reviving the COVID-hit economy and implementing education and business reforms.

Complicating the picture, any Lapid-Bennett government would also have to rely on at least tacit support of parties representing Israel's 21% Arab minority, potentially giving them a say over a cabinet for the first time in decades.

Whether they could stomach Bennett at its head - or Bennett's party comrades would accept their support - are both unanswered questions.

If any piece of the puzzle fails to fall into place, Netanyahu will surely be ready to fight another day.

"It is still too early to declare the dawn of a new day or the end of the Netanyahu era," Tal Shalev, a political correspondent for the Walla news website, wrote on Thursday. "He is still far from turning off the light."

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Peter Graff)