Alex Brandon / AP
JERUSALEM (AP) – The leader of a small extremist party said on Sunday he would try to form a unity government with opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, taking an important step towards the end of the leader’s 12-year reign Israeli.
In a nationwide speech, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett said he decided to team up with the country’s opposition leader Yair Lapid.
“I intend to do everything possible to form a government of national unity with my friend Yair Lapid, so that God willing we can together save the country from a fall and bring Israel back on its way. “Bennett said.
The two have until Wednesday to strike a deal in which they are each expected to serve two years as prime minister under a rotation deal. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party said negotiating teams were due to meet later Sunday.
A unity government would end the cycle of stalemate that has plunged the country into four inconclusive elections in the past two years. It would also end, at least for now, the record tenure of Netanyahu, the most dominant figure in Israeli politics for the past three decades.
In his own televised statement, Netanyahu accused Bennett of betraying the Israeli right.
He urged nationalist politicians who joined the coalition talks not to establish what he called a “left government”.
“A government like this is a danger to the security of Israel, and is also a danger to the future of the state,” he said.
Bennett, a former aide to Netanyahu turned rival, said he was taking the dramatic step to prevent a new election. While sharing Netanyahu’s nationalist ideology, Bennett said there was no possible way for the hard right to form a ruling 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 put off making all their dreams come true. We will focus on what can be done, instead of fighting all day over what is impossible.”
Each of the last four elections has been seen as a referendum on Netanyahu – who has become a polarizing figure as he stands on trial for corruption – each ending in a deadlock.
Netanyahu is desperate to stay in power during his trial. He used his office as a stage to rally support and lash out at police, prosecutors and the media.
If his opponents fail to form a government and a new election is called, it would give him another chance to see the election of a supportive parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution. But if they are successful, he would find himself in the much weaker position of Leader of the Opposition and potentially face unrest within his Likud party.
Netanyahu, who accused Bennett of betraying the Israeli right, expected a televised statement later on Sunday.
To form a government, a party leader must gain the support of a majority of 61 seats in parliament. Since no single party controls a majority on its own, coalitions are usually built with smaller partners.
As leader of the largest party, Netanyahu got the first opportunity by the country’s leading president to form a coalition. But he has not been able to secure a majority with his traditional religious and nationalist allies.
Netanyahu even attempted to woo a small Islamist Arab party but was thwarted by a small ultranationalist party with a racist anti-Arab agenda. Although Arabs make up around 20% of Israel’s population, an Arab party has never previously sat in an Israeli coalition government.
After Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, Lapid then had four weeks to concoct a coalition. He has until Wednesday to complete the task.
Lapid has already faced a difficult challenge, given the wide range of parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc who have little in common. They include accommodating left-wing parties, a pair of right-wing nationalist parties, including Bennett’s Yamina, and most likely the United Arab Islamist list.
Lapid’s task was made even more difficult after war broke out with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on May 10. Its coalition talks were suspended during the 11 days of fighting.
But with Wednesday’s deadline looming, negotiations have shifted into high gear. Lapid has so far concluded coalition agreements with three other parties. If he finalizes a deal with Bennett, the remaining partners should fall into place quickly.