JERUSALEM (AP) – If all goes according to plan, Israel will be sworn in on Sunday for a new government, ending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-breaking 12-year reign and a political crisis that has inflicted four elections on the country in less than two years.
The next government, which will be led by ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett, has pledged to chart a new course to ease the country’s divisions and restore a sense of normalcy.
Anything more ambitious would court disaster.
The coalition is made up of eight parties from across Israel’s political spectrum, including a small Arab party that made history by joining a government for the first time. If even a party were to pull away, the government would be in serious danger of collapsing, and Netanyahu, who intends to remain at the head of the opposition, is waiting behind the scenes.
Here’s a look at what to expect:
A FRAGILE COALITION
The coalition holds only a slim majority among the 120-member Knesset and includes parties from the right, left and center. The only things they agree on is that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, should step down and the country cannot stand another election.
They are expected to adopt a modest agenda acceptable to Israelis across the ideological divide that avoids burning questions. Their first big challenge will be to agree on a budget, the first since 2019. Economic reforms and infrastructure spending could follow.
Bennett will be prime minister for the first two years, followed by centrist Yair Lapid, a former journalist who has been the driving force behind the coalition. But that is only if the government survives this long.
MANAGING THE CONFLICT
Bennett is a religious ultranationalist who supports settlement expansion and opposes a Palestinian state. But he risks losing his job if he alienates his partners from the conciliatory coalition.
This will likely mean continuing Netanyahu’s approach of dealing with the decades-old conflict without trying to end it. Annexation of the occupied West Bank and the invasion of Gaza are probably ruled out, but so are any major concessions to the Palestinians.
Every Israeli government has expanded the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want for their future state. This government should do so in a moderate way that avoids angering the Biden administration, which is pushing for restraint and a possible resumption of peace talks.
The new government is expected to maintain Netanyahu’s tough stance on Iran and oppose President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive his international nuclear deal. But senior officials have already pledged to do so behind closed doors rather than exposing the loophole, as Netanyahu did during the Obama years.
The new government will also likely work with Biden to strengthen ties with the Arab states.
The biggest change will likely be felt at the national level, as the government struggles to heal the divisions in Israeli society that opened up during the Netanyahu years, between Jews and Arabs, and between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis.
“If our political culture is based on lies, threats and hatred of Arabs, and hatred of leftists, and hatred of righties who don’t hate Arabs and leftists enough, then yes, we need change” , Lapid said this week. “We have made changes and are proud of it.
The United Arab List, a small party with Islamist roots led by Mansour Abbas, is the first Arab party to sit in a coalition. In return for his help in ousting Netanyahu, he is expected to secure large budgets for housing, infrastructure and law enforcement in Arab communities.
Arab citizens of Israel make up 20% of the population and face widespread discrimination. They have close family ties with the Palestinians and largely identify with their cause, which leads many Jewish Israelis to view them with suspicion. Tensions boiled over during the Gaza war last month, when Jews and Arabs fought in the streets of mixed towns in Israel.
The new government is already facing hostility from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community – strong supporters of Netanyahu. Earlier this week, ultra-Orthodox leaders condemned him in harsh terms, with one demanding that Bennett remove his kippah, the skullcap worn by observant Jews.
RETURN OF THE KING?
After a quarter of a century at the top of Israeli politics, no one expects 71-year-old Netanyahu, nicknamed the ‘King of Israel’ by his supporters, to quietly retreat to his private home in the resort town of Caesarea.
As the leader of the opposition and leader of the largest party in parliament, Netanyahu should continue to do everything in his power to overthrow the government. His best hope to avoid conviction on serious corruption charges is to fight them from the prime minister’s office, with a governing coalition that could potentially grant him immunity.
But his domineering presence could continue to unite his opponents. Bennett, already labeled a traitor by much of the right-wing base he shares with Netanyahu, heads a small party and is unlikely to get another shot at the top post.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, could face a challenge within his defeated Likud party, which includes a number of potential successors. They know that without the polarization around Netanyahu, Likud would be able to build a strong, stable and stable right-wing government. But Netanyahu retains a strong grip on the party’s institutions and its base, and high-ranking members are unlikely to challenge him unless his downfall is assured.