Netanyahu opponents reach coalition deal to oust Israeli PM

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents announced they have reached a deal to form a new governing coalition, paving the way for the ouster of the longtime Israeli leader.

The dramatic announcement by opposition leader Yair Lapid and his main coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, came moments before a midnight deadline and prevented the country from plunging into what would have been its fifth consecutive election in just over two years.

In a statement on Twitter, Lapid said he had informed the country’s president of the deal. “This government will work for all the citizens of Israel, those that voted for it and those that didn’t. It will do everything to unite Israeli society,” he said.

Under the agreement, Lapid and Bennett will split the job of prime minister in a rotation. Bennett will serve the first two years, while Lapid is to serve the final two years. The historic deal also includes a small Islamist party, the United Arab List, which would make it the first Arab party ever to be part of a governing coalition.

The agreement still needs to be approved by the Knesset, or parliament, in a vote that is expected to take place early next week. If it goes through, Lapid and his diverse array of partners will end the record-setting 12-year rule of Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, desperate to remain in office while he fights corruption charges, is expected to do everything possible in the coming days to prevent the new coalition from taking power. If he fails, he will be pushed into the opposition.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’S earlier story is below:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents raced against the clock to finalize a coalition government that would end his 12-year rule ahead of a deadline at midnight Wednesday.

Centrist Yair Lapid and ultranationalist Naftali Bennett have joined forces and agreed to rotate the premiership between them, with Bennett going first. But they were still working to cobble together a ruling coalition that would include parties from across the political spectrum.

Israeli media reported some lingering disagreements over lower-level political appointments. According to the reports, Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s deputy in the Yamina party, was demanding a place on a committee that chooses the nation’s judges.

But Shaked, a prominent voice in Israel’s hard-line right wing, has expressed misgivings about joining forces with the dovish members of the emerging coalition.

Both Shaked and Bennett have come under heavy pressure from Netanyahu and the country’s right wing base not to join his opponents. The Knesset, or parliament, has assigned additional security guards to both in recent days because of death threats and online incitement.

By Wednesday night, less than two hours before the deadline at midnight (2100 GMT; 5 p.m. EDT), there was still no deal.

In a sign of progress, Lapid announced a coalition deal with the United Arab List, a small Islamist party whose support is key to securing a coalition. The deal would make it the the first Arab party to be part of an Israeli governing coalition. But there was still no deal with Yamina, the last holdout in the emerging government.

Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List, said his party made the “difficult decision” to join Lapid’s governing coalition.

“This is the first time an Arab party is a partner in the formation of a government,” he told reporters. “This agreement has a lot of things for the benefit of Arab society, and Israeli society in general.”

Lapid must inform Israel’s largely ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, by midnight that he has formed a majority coalition of at least 61 seats in the Knesset. The assembly would then have a week to hold a vote of confidence.

If Lapid misses the deadline, the country will almost certainly have a fifth election in just over two years, and Netanyahu would have yet another chance to hold onto his position as he stands trial for corruption.

Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in the March 23 election, but he was unable to form a majority with his traditional religious and nationalist allies.

Crucially, a far-right party allied with Netanyahu refused to join forces with a small Arab party that emerged as one of the kingmakers in the race.

Netanyahu had hoped to extend his long rule and battle the corruption charges from the prime minister’s office. He has emerged as a deeply polarizing force in recent years, leaving Israel in a prolonged state of political limbo through a series of inconclusive elections.

An emergency government formed last year between Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz to battle the coronavirus pandemic quickly became mired in political bickering and collapsed in December. That government remains in place as caretaker.

Amid the political deadlock, parliament on Wednesday elected Isaac Herzog, a veteran politician and the scion of a prominent Israeli family, as the country’s next president.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial role that is meant to serve as the nation’s moral compass and promote unity.

“I intend to be the president of everyone,” Herzog, whose late father held the same position, said after the votes were tallied. “We must defend Israel’s international status and its good reputation in the family of nations, fight antisemitism and hatred of Israel, and preserve the pillars of our democracy. ”

Herzog, 60, is a former head of Israel’s Labor Party and opposition leader who unsuccessfully ran against Netanyahu in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

He comes from a prominent Zionist family. His father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations before being elected president. His uncle, Abba Eban, was Israel’s first foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations and United States. His grandfather was the country’s first chief rabbi.

He defeated challenger Miriam Peretz by a margin of 87-26. Peretz, 67, is a prominent educator and lecturer who is well known because she lost two sons in battle during their military service. In 2018 she was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s top award, for lifetime achievement.

Herzog is set to take office next month and could play a role in Israeli politics down the road.

The president’s responsibilities include choosing the party leader in parliament he believes has the best chance of forming a coalition after each election. If the country is forced into another vote, Herzog could help determine who becomes prime minister.

The president also has the authority to grant pardons — making Herzog a potentially key player if Netanyahu, who is on trial for multiple corruption charges, is eventually convicted.

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