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The two have until Wednesday to finalize a deal that is expected to each serve two years as prime ministers in a rotation agreement. Lapid’s party Yesh Atid said the negotiating teams should meet later Sunday.
A unity government would end the cycle of impasse that has plunged the country into four unsuccessful elections in the past two years. It would also, at least for now, end the record-breaking tenure of Netanyahu, the dominant figure in Israeli politics for the past three decades.
In his own televised statement, Netanyahu accused Bennett of betraying the Israeli right wing.
He called on nationalist politicians who had joined the coalition talks not to form what he called a “left government”.
“A government like this is a threat to Israel’s security and also a threat to the future of the state,” he said.
Bennett, a former Netanyahu advisor who became a rival, said he was taking the dramatic move to prevent another election. Bennett shared Netanyahu’s nationalist ideology but said there was no viable path for the radical right to form a government majority in parliament.
“A government like this will only be successful if we work together as a group,” he said.
He said everyone will “have to postpone the fulfillment of all of their dreams. We will focus on what can be done instead of struggling the impossible all day. “
Each of the last four elections has been viewed as a referendum on Netanyahu – who has become a polarizing figure as he stands on trial on corruption charges – and each ended in a dead end.
Netanyahu is desperate to stay in power while he’s on trial. He has used his office as a stage to gather support and take action against the police, prosecutors and the media.
If his opponents fail to form a government and new elections are started, he would have another chance to elect a parliament that would grant him immunity from prosecution. But if they succeed, he would find himself in the much weaker position of opposition leader and potentially face unrest in his Likud party.
Netanyahu, who has accused Bennett of betraying the Israeli right, was planning a televised statement later Sunday.
In order to form a government, a party leader must secure the support of a majority of 61 seats in parliament. Since no party alone controls a majority, coalitions are usually formed with smaller partners.
As the leader of the largest party, Netanyahu was given the country’s flagship opportunity to form a coalition. However, he was unable to secure a majority with his traditional religious and nationalist allies.
Netanyahu even tried to court a small Islamist Arab party but was thwarted by a small ultra-nationalist party with a racist anti-Arab agenda. Although Arabs make up around 20% of the Israeli population, no Arab party has ever sat in an Israeli coalition government.
After Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, Lapid was given four weeks to cobble together a coalition. He has until Wednesday to finish the task.
Given the wide range of parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc that have little in common, Lapid was already facing a difficult challenge. These include deaf left parties, a pair of right-wing nationalist parties including Bennett’s Yamina, and most likely the Islamist United Arab List.
Lapid’s task became even more difficult when war with Hamas fighters broke out in Gaza on May 10. His coalition talks were interrupted during the eleven days of fighting.
But with the impending deadline on Wednesday, negotiations are in full swing. So far, Lapid has concluded coalition agreements with three other parties. If he hits a deal with Bennett, the remaining partners are expected to show up quickly.