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Rivals Join Forces In An Attempt To End Netanyahu's 12 Years In Power

NOEL KING, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be forced out of office soon after 12 years in power. A coalition of his opponents agrees on very little, but they do agree he should go. Netanyahu has been fighting to hold them off. The main contender for that job is another right-wing politician, Naftali Bennett. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been following this story from Jerusalem. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Let's talk about the man who could be prime minister, Naftali Bennett. He spoke last night. What did he say?

ESTRIN: Well, it was really something to watch. Naftali Bennett, for the very first time, came out publicly and clearly against his longtime political partner, Benjamin Netanyahu. He said, Israel was in a tailspin. He called it an unprecedented political crisis - four elections in the past two years with no conclusive result. He said Netanyahu has been unable to form his own governing coalition but has hung on to office, election after election. He said Netanyahu actually offered to share power with him and another right-wing politician, a last-minute suggestion that Netanyahu gave, but he said Netanyahu cannot be trusted to keep his promises.

So he says that he's now going to try to join forces with centrists and leftists in what he calls a unity government. So he would serve as prime minister and then later hand over the job to a centrist politician, Yair Lapid. They will try to cobble together that coalition before a Wednesday midnight deadline. Now, there are many ways that Netanyahu and his allies could scuttle this before it goes for a final Parliament vote in the coming days, but there is also a good chance that we are looking at the possibility of the end of Netanyahu's rule.

KING: So you have the right-wing politician, Bennett, who says he will partner with centrists and leftists. How will he pull that off?

ESTRIN: It may sound unbelievable because Bennett is a former settler leader in the West Bank. He's considered even more right-wing than Netanyahu. He once told The New Yorker magazine, I will do everything in my power to make sure the Palestinians never get a state. And in the last election, he represented a small right-wing party that only got about 6% of the vote, and yet he has become the consensus candidate for prime minister. He's the one who says he can unite the right and left and centrist parties.

What they have in common is that they despise Netanyahu after a record 12 years in office. Netanyahu now faces a corruption trial. He is accused of polarizing the country, delegitimizing anyone who doesn't support his leadership. So if Bennett does actually succeed in building this coalition, it would be historic. It would be left, right, center. Even for the first time, perhaps, an Islamist Arab party would actively support a government. And it would mean that they would not take any major policy decisions on the big ideological questions Israel faces. They would - each side would have veto power. So don't expect any decisions on, like, the question of a Palestinian state. Right now the goal is, for them, to get Bibi Netanyahu out.

KING: OK, those are his political opponents, of course. What do ordinary people think of Netanyahu right now and of Bennett?

ESTRIN: Well, of Bennett, I hear a lot of support for him. He appeals to young Israelis, many of them are right-wing. On the left side of the spectrum, you know, Haaretz, the most liberal newspaper in Israel, the most progressive, ran an editorial that actually supported Bennett for prime minister if it means getting rid of Netanyahu. And I heard that same sentiment today at the dumpster. We met a 77-year-old Israeli emptying the kitty litter. He says he's a left-wing, pro-Palestinian activist. His name is Rimon Lavi. He says he doesn't like Bennett's politics, but he still hopes that he'll be the next prime minister. Let's listen.

RIMON LAVI: I need the change. Everyone who can bring a change in the political situation in Israel is welcome - for a short time. I hope for a short time, not for long.

ESTRIN: Now, Palestinian leadership in the West Bank says a government led by Bennett would be right-wing and no different than Netanyahu.

KING: OK. And how is Benjamin Netanyahu defending himself, if at all? What is he saying about all this?

ESTRIN: He gave a speech. He said, you know, this kind of alternate government would be dangerous to Israeli security. He said, imagine it; a government with left-wing, centrist members who will be having to decide whether to go to war with Gaza. What will Iran think? What - how will we be seen in the eyes of our enemies? Who will pave roads for Jewish settlers in the West Bank? He will do everything now he can to try to scuttle this attempt to unseat him.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thank you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.