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A look at the Israeli coalition trying to strip Netanyahu of power

Israel's longest serving prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu — has been swept from office after two years of political turmoil. Opposition groups on Wednesday agreed on a new government — with potentially far-reaching implications for Israel and all of the Middle East. Whether the coalition will be ratified, and what it has planned for Israel's future, remains to be seen. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to Israel.

    Nick Schifrin explores how this coalition government might usher in a new era of political leadership.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's the unlikeliest of coalitions, the next prime minister, right-wing Naftali Bennett, who vows there will never be a Palestinian state, the next foreign minister, centrist Yair Lapid, former TV host who believes in the two-state solution, and Mansour Abbas, leader of an Islamist party who's demanded improved rights for Israel's Arab minority.

    Along with others, they formed the change coalition, united only in their opposition to one man. Benjamin Netanyahu is the country's longest running prime minister, one of Israel's most consequential politicians, and, today, one of its most divisive. The change coalition's strange bedfellows needed to come together to oust him because of the Knesset, or Parliament, math. A government coalition needs 61 of 120 seats. In the last election, Netanyahu's Likud got the most 30 seats, but he couldn't create a coalition.

    Lapid's Yesh Atid Party came in second with 17, so he tried next. The change coalition adds the centrist Blue and White Party's eight seats, Bennett's right-wing Yamina Party's seven seats, progressive Labor's seven seats, nationalist immigrant party Yisrael Beiteinu's seven seats, center-right party New Hope's six seats, the green party Meretz's six seats, and Abbas' Islamist Ra'am Party's four seats.

    Eight parties, 62 seats, one coalition. The power-sharing agreement calls for Bennett to become prime minister for two years and Lapid to take over after that. Bennett will replace the man who was once his mentor. Bennett has called for Israel to annex the West Bank, which would be illegal under international law.

  • Naftali Bennett (through translator):

    The New Right Party is right-wing, period, no but and not roughly, in favor of greater Israel, without compromises, against a Palestinian state, period.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    His ascension is the end of an era. Netanyahu has led the Likud Party since 1993. He won for the first time in 1996, in part by opposing the Oslo accords and their nascent steps toward peace.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu:

    Instead of taking care of security, there is gross insecurity and irresponsibility on the part of the prime minister.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated just months before the 1996 election. Netanyahu won again in 2009. Over the last 12 years, he has overseen a rightward shift in Israeli politics, strongly opposed the Iran nuclear deal…

  • Benjamin Netanyahu:

    It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb. It paves Iran's path to the bomb.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … and, more recently, became the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for corruption.

    The last few months have been one of the country's most tumultuous periods, Jewish and Arab Israelis fighting in the streets, a punishing 11-day war in Gaza on Hamas and a record number of rockets indiscriminately fired into Israeli cities, and, in the last two years, inconclusive election after inconclusive election.

    Today's announcement avoids a fifth election. And the change leaders describe it as a way to save the country.

  • Naftali Bennett:

    We can move to a fifth, sixth, 10th election to dismantle the walls of the country brick by brick, until our house will collapse on us. And it's possible to stop the madness and take responsibility.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we get two differing views on this moment from Carmiel Arbit at the Atlantic Council and Jonathan Schanzer at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    Welcome, both, to the "NewsHour."

    Carmiel Arbit, let me start with you.

    This still has to be ratified by the Parliament, by the Knesset. Is this a done deal?

  • Carmiel Arbit:

    It ain't over until it's over when it comes to Bibi Netanyahu.

    So, I would wait and sort of hold excitement until next week, when the new government will be sworn in. It's always possible that members will defect, so much so that the coalition could fall apart.

    However, I and so many others who are watching this and in Israel and in the United States are really very optimistic that, given the breadth of the coalition that have brought in, including Arab parties into the government, that this will, in fact, hold. But it ain't over until it's over.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jonathan Schanzer, the breadth includes, as we detailed, two leaders at the top who differ very dramatically when it comes to the Palestinians. But this coalition says it will focus on domestic issues.

    Will it work?

  • Jonathan Schanzer:

    Well, I think it obviously remains to be seen.

    It's — let's just say Israeli politics are not for the faint of heart. I don't think any of the leading members of this coalition are going to hold back when they differ from one another.

    But if they want this to last, they're going to have to reach compromise. I think that will be a good thing. That said, I think it's going to be very, very difficult for this government to only focus on domestic issues. You have got the Iran nuclear deal coming up very quickly. This is something that the bulk of Israelis oppose, left, right and center.

    So we will have to see exactly how they move forward in opposition to this deal, without their most vociferous voice, which has been Netanyahu, since the deal was announced in 2015.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Carmiel Arbit, do you think that they can work together, including with what is the first independent Arab party, an Islamist Arab party, that will join an Israeli coalition since the 1950s, let alone a right-left coalition?

  • Carmiel Arbit:

    As Jonathan said, I think there's a real opportunity here to focus on domestic issues, things like passing a budget, which the Israeli government hasn't been able to do now for several years, economic reform, legal, possibly even judicial reform.

    I think anything that goes beyond that narrow scope, as Jonathan said, will be very difficult. The Arab parties in this context are making very narrow demands, relative to what we might have seen, things like economic issues or improved policing.

    And so I think, on those concerns, it will be quite easy for the Israeli government in this new configuration to make concessions. But anything bigger than that, for example, on the Palestinian issue, will be very difficult and something I expect they will avoid.

    I will stop there.


  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, Jonathan Schanzer, as you pointed out before, they won't be able to avoid Iran.

    The Biden administration is trying to make a deal or reenter the Iran nuclear deal. Despite the differences on the Palestinians, is there unanimity about how to handle the Biden administration, especially when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal?

  • Jonathan Schanzer:

    Well, I think there isn't.

    I think that there is opposition across the board. I think what we have seen out of the Netanyahu government is a very aggressive opposition to the Biden administration and actually really to Iran. We have seen something that is widely recognized. It's called the war between wars. And this is activities that Israel has undertaken, sabotage of Iranian vessels.

    In fact, Israel could have been responsible for the one reported today. So, these are things that Israel has been doing in the past to try to erode the Iranian military and their capabilities. And, of course, they have been strident in their opposition to the Biden administration.

    It's unclear what the policy will be with this new unity government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Carmiel Arbit, we have got a couple minutes left.

    And I want to bring up Bibi Netanyahu. He vows to stay in the opposition. So perhaps it's a little early to describe the epitaph. But I want to give you the chance. What do you think Netanyahu's legacy will be?

  • Carmiel Arbit:

    I think, as you said, Netanyahu will stay in the opposition and will continue to try to roil the government, to try to cause instability and sow divisions within this new governing coalition.

    Bibi Netanyahu has been the longest-serving prime minister in Israel, one who can lay claim to some to making Israel a safer place and, on the other hand, has failed to pursue any long-term strategy for Israel as it relates to both Palestinians and the region.

    And so I think his legacy will be a very mixed one and will be likely bookended by the legal troubles that he finds himself in. One of the main reasons Netanyahu was eager to stay in government is that, for him, it is a choice between the prime minister's office and potentially jail. And that may very well be the end of the story of Netanyahu as we hear it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jonathan Schanzer, a mixed legacy whose bookend is a corruption trial. What do you think?

  • Jonathan Schanzer:

    I'm not sure.

    I think that when you look at leadership around the world right now, leaders are being judged on how they handle the corona crisis and how they guided the country economically after the corona crisis. On both of those fronts, Netanyahu has excelled. He has really been at the forefront of leadership on the world stage.

    I think he will get a lot of credit for that. He will get credit for the four peace deals that he made last year with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan. He helped Israel become a leader in cyber, in high tech. I think there's a lot of good that we will see in retrospect, as historians write the history of Benjamin Netanyahu.

    But, of course, in Israel, people will have a lot of opinions, as they always do. And his legacy will be debated for a long time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Carmiel Arbit, do you think that historians will judge Netanyahu kindly?

  • Carmiel Arbit:

    Probably not as kindly as Jonathan thinks that they will.

    I think that the failure to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front will certainly tarnish his international legacy, although many Israelis may view it differently.

    I think, again, the corruption, the failure to cultivate future leadership, the incursion into institutions within Israel that the new government will now have an opportunity to start to rebuild, I think history may not be as kind to Netanyahu as Jonathan suggests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jonathan Schanzer, 20 seconds. Your response.


  • Jonathan Schanzer:

    All I can say is that Netanyahu was dealt a tough hand, as every Israeli leader has over the years. Peace has not been made with any of the previous prime ministers. I wouldn't saddle him with that.

    I think he has led Israel through some tumultuous times. And I think it is for that reason that Israelis will appreciate him, even as perhaps he exits the political scene.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Carmiel Arbit, Jonathan Schanzer, thank you very much to you both.

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