The leader of a far-right Israeli party has thrown his support behind plans for a “government of change” to unseat the country’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a move that could signal the end of a political era.
Naftali Bennett’s decision, which was announced in a televised address, could allow opposition chief Yair Lapid the opportunity to put together a coalition of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties to defeat Mr Netanyahu for the first time since 1999.
Mr Lapid, who leads the centrist party Yesh Atid, faces a Wednesday deadline from Israel’s president to announce a new government.
His party finished second to Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in an inconclusive national ballot in March.
The chances of a unity government succeeding have largely rested with Mr Bennett, a former defence chief whose Yamina party holds six seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament.
Under the prospective power-sharing deal, Mr Bennett would replace Mr Netanyahu as prime minister and later give way to Mr Lapid in a rotation agreement.
“I am announcing today that I intend to work with all my might towards establishing a unity government with Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid,” he said in a speech on Sunday.
“It’s either a fifth election, or a unity government.”
In response, Mr Netanyahu accused Mr Bennett of perpetrating “the fraud of the century”, citing past public promises against joining up with Mr Lapid.
The Israeli prime minister urged nationalist politicians involved in the coalition talks to not establish what he called a “leftist government”.
“A government like this is a danger to the security of Israel, and is also a danger to the future of the state,” he claimed.
Israel has held four elections since April 2019 that have produced no clear winner, leaving Mr Netanyahu to remain in office as the head of a caretaker government.
The veteran leader has served as Israel’s prime minister since 2009 and also served as PM from 1996 to 1999.
Although the proposed coalition would be united in its desire to end the 12-year rule of Mr Netanyahu, who is currently on trial over corruption charges – which he denies – there is little that the parties involved have in common.
A unity government would be expected to focus on the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, while setting aside issues on which members disagree, such as the role of religion in society and Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
It is expected that there will be another election if Mr Lapid fails to announce a new government by Wednesday – the end point of a 28-day period to build a coalition.