Participants in the prospective government say they are willing to set aside grand policy gestures if it means avoiding more political gridlock

Israeli politician Naftali Bennett has been locked in negotiations about a new coalition government. He appeared at the Knesset Sunday.PHOTO: YONATAN SINDEL/PRESS POOL

By Felicia Schwartz May 31, 2021 1:07 pm ET

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TEL AVIV— Naftali Bennett, a standard-bearer for Israel’s right-wing, was locked in negotiations on Monday with politicians across Israel’s ideological spectrum united in their goal of dislodging from power the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The 49-year old former Israeli commando is working with centrist politician Yair Lapid to meet a Wednesday midnight deadline to agree on a coalition that would govern Israel through one of the most tumultuous periods of the country’s history. The disparate parties have aligned mainly to oust Mr. Netanyahu and to avoid another election—the fifth in just over two years.

“There are still plenty of obstacles in the way of the formation of the new government. Maybe that’s a good thing because we’ll have to overcome them together,” said Mr. Lapid Monday of the coalition talks. “In a week the state of Israel can be in a new era.”

Under the emerging terms of a deal, Mr. Bennett will serve first as prime minister for two years and then Mr. Lapid will succeed him. The other parties that are expected to be part of the government are left-wing Labor and Meretz, centrist Blue and White and right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu and New Hope as well as Mr. Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid and Mr. Bennett’s right-wing Yamina. Israel’s Islamist party Raam is expected to back the coalition from the outside.

Mr. Lapid received the mandate to form the government earlier this month after Mr. Netanyahu failed. He has until Wednesday to tell Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin he is forming a government. Once he does that, the new government must be sworn in within a week, with the support of a majority of the Knesset.

Participants in the prospective government say they are willing to set aside grand policy gestures if it means avoiding more political gridlock at a time when the country faces a series of critical challenges.

Centrist politician Yair Lapid delivered a statement Monday. Under the emerging terms of a deal, Mr. Lapid would become prime minister in two years.PHOTO: DEBBIE HILL/PRESS POOL

Over the past year, Israel struggled to suppress the Covid-19 pandemic that has caused billions of dollars of losses to the economy, and is now reopening after one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns. Israel also has faced off against Iran, at sea and with Iran’s allies in the region. And in May, Israel fought the militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, trading missile and rocket fire.

The conflict killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children and 12 people in Israel, including two children. Israel was also roiled by communal violence between Arab and Jewish citizens within its borders.

“If there’s a dispute for example about Gaza, or things we haven’t solved for over 70 years, nothing will happen if we don’t solve them in the next 4½ years,” Matan Kahana, a member of Mr. Bennett’s Yamina party, said in an interview Monday with Army Radio.

The coalition that is coming together under Messrs. Lapid and Bennett now threatens to drive Mr. Netanyahu from office, leaving him to face a corruption trial without the benefits of being prime minister. Had Mr. Netanyahu remained in power, he may have been able to press legislation or appoint officials that could have insulated him from the charges.

Mr. Bennett faces risks of his own. In his bid to oust his former mentor, who has been Israel’s prime minister since 2009, Mr. Bennett could draw blame from the country’s right for abandoning them. Mr. Netanyahu, in televised statements on Sunday, accused Mr. Bennett of defrauding right-wing voters, many of whom expected the incumbent to stay in power.

“There is no one in Israel that would’ve voted for Bennett if they knew what he was going to do,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “This is the deception of the century.”

Overnight Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party placed three massive banners on a building at the entrance to Jerusalem, warning Mr. Bennett and his right wing partners that “the right will not forgive you.”

Analysts say Mr. Bennett has a significant incentive to ensure his prospective coalition stays together, scoring achievements on the economy and other areas to win back supporters on the right who are veering away. “They’re all jockeying for position for the next elections,” said Reuven Hazan, a political-science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Benny Gantz, who is the leader of the Blue and White party that formed a short-lived government with Mr. Netanyahu, said he would do all he can to support Mr. Bennett as prime minister. He predicted that political interests of the party chiefs would bind together a Bennett-Lapid government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arriving at Israel’s parliament Sunday, has accused political rival Naftali Bennett of defrauding right-wing voters.PHOTO: YONATAN SINDEL/PRESS POOL

“[Bennett] has no alternative and [Lapid] wants to reach the point of becoming prime minister. So politically speaking, there are mutual interests for different players,” Mr. Gantz said. “All the rest don’t want to see Benjamin Netanyahu coming back.”

Mr. Bennett’s pivot away from Mr. Netanyahu comes after a long and sometimes fractious history together.

Born in Haifa to American parents, he is a fluent English speaker, just like his former mentor. Mr. Bennett was also a commander in the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, in which Mr. Netanyahu also served at an earlier time.

When Mr. Netanyahu was the opposition leader in the mid-2000s, Mr. Bennett served as his chief of staff. After his army service and before joining Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Bennett received a law degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and made millions when a software firm he co-founded was sold.

Mr. Bennett entered the Knesset in 2013 as the leader of the Jewish Home party, a religious Zionist party, and served as the education minister and defense minister under Mr. Netanyahu. He formed Yamina in 2018, splitting off from more conservatively religious and even more hawkish Israeli politicians—though he remained in a formal alliance with them until earlier this year.

Mr. Bennett, as a government minister, has walked a fine line between ideology and pragmatism, especially on the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat and former chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, said as a lawmaker Mr. Bennett has advocated for annexation, or applying Israeli sovereignty to the parts of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel, but didn’t favor such moves in any of his ministerial posts. “The list of his priorities changes according to different timing,” Mr. Revivi said.

In remarks announcing his decision to join Mr. Lapid on Sunday, Mr. Bennett said the new government will be focused on consensus and wouldn’t pursue extreme policies of any of the various camps involved, particularly when it comes to the Palestinians.

“No one will be asked to give up their ideology, but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams,” he said. “We will focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible.”

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been working together for decades, but their friendship faces new trials amid the Israel-Hamas truce. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib takes a look at key moments from the last 15 years of their relationship, and what might come next. Photo illustration: Todd Johnson

—Dov Lieber in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at

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