Opposition leaders struggled to complete negotiations to form a coalition government ahead of a midnight deadline on Wednesday, delaying efforts to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and end a two-year political impasse that has left Israel without a stable government or state budget.
If an agreement is reached in time, and if Parliament ratifies it in a confidence vote in the coming days, that would bring down the curtain — if perhaps only for an intermission — on the premiership of Mr. Netanyahu. He has been the country’s longest-serving prime minister, for 12 years consecutively and 15 years overall, and he has defined contemporary Israel more than any other recent leader.
Failure to make the deadline would make it more likely that Israelis would soon face their fifth national elections in just over two years.
Even if it is formed, the new coalition would be an unusual and awkward alliance between up to eight political parties from a diverse array of ideologies, from the left to the far right, which analysts expect will struggle to last a full term. In a harbinger of tensions to come, talks stalled on Wednesday after a disagreement over whether Ayelet Shaked, a hard-right lawmaker and a proponent of judicial changes that are opposed by the left, would be allowed to join a committee that appoints new judges. She eventually agreed to share the job with a left-wing lawmaker.
For their part, some leftist and centrist ministers are expected to rile their right-wing coalition partners by focusing on police reform or by blocking settlement expansion.
The coalition’s success also hinges on the support of a small Arab party, Raam, which has refused to commit to a deal without being given assurances of greater resources and rights for Israel’s Arab minority, including reforms to housing legislation that potential hard-right coalition partners deem unacceptable.
While some analysts say the putative coalition reflects breadth and complexity of contemporary Israeli society, others say its members are too incompatible for their compact to last, and consider it the embodiment of Israel’s political dysfunction.
The alliance would be led until 2023 by Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader and standard-bearer for the religious right, who opposes a Palestinian state and wants Israel to annex the majority of the occupied West Bank. He is a former ally of Mr. Netanyahu often described as more right-wing than the prime minister.
If the government lasts a whole term, it would then be led between 2023 and 2025 by Yair Lapid, a centrist former television host considered a standard-bearer for secular Israelis.
Naftali Bennett, who is poised to become Israel’s next prime minister, is a former high-tech entrepreneur best known for insisting that there must never be a full-fledged Palestinian state and that Israel should annex much of the occupied West Bank.
The independently wealthy son of immigrants from the United States, Mr. Bennett, 49, first entered the Israeli Parliament eight years ago and is relatively unknown and inexperienced on the international stage. That has left much of the world — and many Israelis — wondering what kind of leader he might be.
A former chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Bennett is often described as more right-wing than his old boss. Shifting between seemingly contradictory alliances, Mr. Bennett has been called an extremist and an opportunist. Allies say he is merely a pragmatist, less ideological than he appears, and lacking Mr. Netanyahu’s penchant for demonizing opponents.
In a measure of Mr. Bennett’s talents, he has now pulled off a feat that is extraordinary even by the perplexing standards of Israeli politics. He has all but maneuvered himself into the top office even though his party, Yamina, won just seven of the 120 seats in the Parliament.
Mr. Bennett leveraged his modest but pivotal electoral weight after the inconclusive March election, Israel’s fourth in two years. He entered coalition talks as a kingmaker, and appears ready to emerge as the one wearing the crown.
Mr. Bennett has long championed West Bank settlers and once led the council representing them, though he is not a settler, himself. He is religiously observant — he would be the first prime minister to wear a kipa — but he will head a governing coalition that is largely secular.
He would lead a precarious coalition that spans Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relies on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party — much of which opposes his ideas on settlement and annexation. That coalition proposes to paper over its differences on Israeli-Palestinian relations by focusing on domestic matters.
Mr. Bennett has explained his motives for teaming up with such ideological opposites as an act of last resort to end the political impasse that has paralyzed Israel.
“The political crisis in Israel is unprecedented on a global level,” he said in a televised speech on Sunday. “We could end up with fifth, sixth, even 10th elections, dismantling the walls of the country, brick by brick, until our house falls in on us. Or we can stop the madness and take responsibility.”
Naftali Bennett, who leads a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, have joined forces to try to form a diverse coalition to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Spanning Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relying on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party, the proposed coalition, dubbed the “change government” by supporters, could signal a profound shift for Israel. Its leaders have pledged to end the cycle of divisive politics and inconclusive elections.
But even if they create the coalition by a midnight deadline and topple Mr. Netanyahu, how much change would their “change government” bring, when some of the parties agree on little else besides antipathy for Israel’s longest-serving leader?
Mr. Bennett, whose party won seven seats in Parliament, is often described as further to the right than Mr. Netanyahu. While Mr. Netanyahu eroded the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Bennett, a religiously observant champion of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, openly rejects the concept of a sovereign Palestinian state and has advocated annexing West Bank territory.
Still, though the coalition will include several parties that disagree on both those issues, they have agreed to allow Mr. Bennett to become prime minister first.
If the coalition deal holds, Mr. Bennett would be replaced for the second part of the four-year term by Mr. Lapid, who advocates for secular, middle-class Israelis and whose party won 17 seats.
By conceding the first turn in the rotation, Mr. Lapid, who has been branded as a dangerous leftist by his opponents on the right, smoothed the way for other right-wing politicians to join the new anti-Netanyahu alliance.
In a measure of the plot twists and tumult behind this political turnaround, Mr. Bennett had pledged before the election not to enable a Lapid government of any kind or any government reliant on the Islamist party, called Raam.
The coalition would stand or fall on the cooperation between eight parties — seven in the government and Raam voting to support it — with disparate ideologies and, on many issues, clashing agendas.
In a televised address on Sunday night, Mr. Bennett said he was committed to fostering national unity.
“Two thousand years ago, there was a Jewish state which fell here because of internal quarrels,” he said. “This will not happen again. Not on my watch.”
Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, has until Wednesday at midnight to inform the president, Reuven Rivlin, that he has managed to assemble a viable coalition. If he makes that announcement, he then has up to seven days to present the government to Parliament for a vote of confidence.
Some disagreements within the fractious coalition were still being ironed out in the run-up to the deadline on Wednesday. And with the fate of the new coalition dependent on a narrow margin and hanging on every single vote, its partners were racing to complete the agreement, knowing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies were on the hunt for potential defectors.
The coalition, ranging from right to left, is united primarily by its opposition to Mr. Netanyahu.
Israel has held four parliamentary elections in two years, all of them inconclusive, leaving it without a stable government or state budget. If the opposition fails to form a government today, it could lead to yet another election.
“There are still plenty of obstacles in the way of the formation of the new government,” Mr. Lapid, the leader of a centrist party, said on Monday. “Maybe that’s a good thing because we’ll have to overcome them together. That’s our first test.”
One of the most unlikely kingmakers involved in the race to announce a new government is Mansour Abbas, the leader of the small Arab party known by its Hebrew acronym, Raam, with four seats in the current Parliament.
Although Raam is not likely to play a formal role in a Lapid-Bennett coalition government, the government would rely on Raam’s support to pass a confidence vote and to be able to control the Parliament. Some Arab lawmakers played a similar role by supporting Yitzhak Rabin’s government from the outside in the 1990s.
For decades, Arab parties have not been directly involved in Israeli governments. They have been mostly shunned by other parties, and are leery of joining a government that oversees occupation of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s military actions.
But after decades of political marginalization, many Palestinian citizens, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population, have been seeking fuller integration.
Raam has been willing to work with both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps since the March election and to use its leverage to wrest concessions for the Arab public. The party has refused to commit to a deal unless it gets assurances for greater resources and rights for Israel’s Arab minority, including reforms to housing legislation that potential hard-right coalition partners do not accept.