ISR-elections-foloFour weeks after the fourth election in two years, leader Benjamin Netanyahu is running out of options to maintain a governing coalition, remain in the prime minister's residence, and retain the legal immunity of the office in the face of an ongoing trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister, has been seen as an immovable object with Israel seemingly unable to form a government with him – or without him. But now, the unthinkable is happening – Israelis of all stripes want to move on.

And means that many who would have once considered alliances with Netanyahu's Likud party are now saying they will consider a coalition but only if he goes, while considering alliances with others they once would have shunned.

"Netanyahu still could pull a rabbit out of the hat and form the next government, but I think his chances have gone down somewhat, and that's partly because there is a vigorous effort on the part of the other parties to form a government with one another, which will also probably be unstable, with odd bedfellows who don't have a lot in common," said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv public opinion researcher and a political advisor who has worked on eight national campaigns in Israel.

The inconclusive March vote came after Netanyahu's contentious fifth term conceived as a shotgun marriage between his nationalist Likud party and the centrist Blue and White party led by former Commander-in-Chief of the Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz.

"Netanyahu formed a government with Benny Ganz but it didn't last partly because he (Netanyahu) didn't want it to last," said Scheindlin.

Ganz said he was only in the partnership to help guide the country through the Covid-19 pandemic and maintain the independence of the judiciary as the corruption case against Netanyahu ground through the courts.

That arrangement stipulated that Gantz would rotate into the premiership after Netanyahu served 18 months as the leader but collapsed after the parties failed to pass the 2020-2021 budget as agreed to in their unity government deal.

The past week has further highlighted the chaotic dynamic of Israeli-style democracy, with the Supreme Court moving Tuesday to block Netanyahu's attempt to appoint Likud functionary Ofir Akunis as justice minister.

Ganz insisted Netanyahu's nomination of Akunis violated conflict of interest laws prohibiting his involvement in law enforcement issues while under indictment. Facing a widespread backlash, Netanyahu caved Wednesday and appointed Gantz as justice minister for the remaining tenure of the interim government.

Netanyahu has simultaneously offered a rotation in the prime minister's chair to Ganz, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, and New Hope chairman Gideon Sa'ar.

All three say that while they would join a coalition with Likud members of parliament, they won't agree to a power-sharing agreement with the party as long as Netanyahu remains its leader.

Bennett and Sa'ar both said that they were prepared to join a unity coalition with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and the left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties. Lapid's centrist party won 17 of the Knesset's 120 seats in the election compared to 7 for Bennett's right-wing Yamina.

Yet eager to capitalize on the chance to definitively ditch Netanyahu, Lapid and his voters are willing to slot Bennett in as prime minister.

According to an Israeli TV survey, nearly two-thirds of voters who backed parties aiming to eject Netanyahu think Lapid should stand aside and give Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett the premiership.

In a sign of Bennett's emergence as the most viable contender to lead the anti-Netanyahu "Change Bloc," the Yemina leader met United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas Wednesday morning to explore options for a broad coalition.

Traditionally Israeli-Arab parties have been sidelined in coalition talks, and the far-right settler and religious factions have told Netanyahu that they will veto any attempt to include Abbas in the next government.

"A government with Abbas is like a government with Hamas," said Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich who warned he would make sure Muslims would not remain in Israel if they did not recognize that the land belongs to the Jews.

Determined to avoid the specter of a fifth election, some Israelis are beginning to imagine how the country would be different when Netanyahu is shown the door.

"This time, I think Israel can probably form a government, probably without Netanyahu. And it will be an interesting exercise of people that are coming from the left, the center, and from the right with a common agenda to get the rational process in this country back on track," said Erel Margalit, who heads up Jerusalem Venture Partners, an Israeli tech investment powerhouse and a former Labor party member during Netanyahu's third term as prime minister.

"A dose of honesty and decency will build trust between parties which are different, and that's going to create a sense of opportunity, a new political joint venture to take advantage of the post-pandemic opportunities for our economy particularly in the Arab Gulf states," said Margalit who has led several delegations of Israeli tech entrepreneurs in deal-seeking missions to the United Arab Emirates.

Margalit thinks Bennet's professional background managing teams at a successful tech company would enable the new forms of multi-party cooperation despite Yamina's hardline position on territorial concessions to the Palestinians, opposition to the implementation of same-sex marriage, and other policy stances that bolster his religious-nationalist bona fides.

"Israel thrived before Bibi and will thrive after Bibi," Bennet said in a recent interview with The Times Of Israel editor David Horovitz. "The Jewish people are not dependent on one person. A good leader does not create that sense that everything depends on him."

Still, Likud's most stalwart supporters think it's simply chutzpah for Bennet, whose party came in fifth place to assume the premiership.

"We've never had a situation where a head of a party with seven members made an effort to claim that he needs to be the next prime minister," said Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, an upscale settlement seven miles south of Jerusalem, as he left a Ramadan iftar at a nearby Palestinian village. "Israelis saw the depth of Netanyahu's leadership on covid-19. Netanyahu saw what the challenge was. He managed to beat the whole world with the number of vaccines brought in and succeed because he had the experience and the ability to close the deal."

"Now, if you have somebody who is not confident and not experienced in the job, we will have to pay a learning fee until the new leader becomes assertive and capable of making difficult decisions," Revivi added.

Photo: March 23, 2021 - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots today, at the Beit Chinuch Ironi Gimmel high school in Jerusalem.
Credit: Courtesy of the Prime Minister of Israel's official Twitter page. (03/23/21)

Story/photo published date: 05/10/21

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.