ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Israel is one major step closer to seeing the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 12 years in office. Netanyahu opponents in parliament say they've completed a deal to vote him out and install a new prime minister. If parliament approves it, a vote could take place in just a couple weeks. The new prime minister would be another right-wing politician, Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu is expected to keep trying to scuttle this, but he is running out of options. And NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us to explain from Jerusalem.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: This is a dramatic moment that seems to have gone up to the wire. Remind us what led to this.
ESTRIN: Yeah. Well, Israel faced an unprecedented political crisis these last two years. The country held election after election. Each one ended in stalemate. And the whole time, Netanyahu managed to stay in office. Last month, Netanyahu failed to form a coalition again, and a centrist candidate was designated to try to form one.
The way the system works here is that Israel has many political parties. No party ever wins a majority of seats in parliament, so parties need to build a coalition to have a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament.
So there were eight parties trying to form a coalition. Now, each party had demands. They were divvying up government ministries and policies they wanted to pursue. And there was very late-night negotiating. And just short of the midnight deadline, the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, got a phone call. There's a video of this. You see centrist Yair Lapid. He's holding the phone. He's sitting next to the right-wing politician Naftali Bennett. And he notifies the Israeli president they have a coalition to replace Netanyahu.
SHAPIRO: So this is not a done deal. But if the coalition holds together and it is affirmed by the parliament, then what would this new government look like?
ESTRIN: You know, in many ways it would reflect the diversity of Israeli society, Ari. The prime minister would be a hard-line conservative, Naftali Bennett. Two years later, he would hand over the job to centrist Yair Lapid. And then, the government would include parties from the left, the right, religious Jewish nationalists and even, for the first time in history, an Israeli coalition would be formed with an Arab Islamist party.
All these parties agree on the goal of replacing Netanyahu. They do not agree on much else. So they have agreed not to make any major moves on controversial issues, like the future of the West Bank. We'll have to see if that is really the case. But there are so many other issues that these parties do not agree on, from LGBTQ rights to religious issues. It just makes this coalition very shaky. So all it would take really is one or two members to quit and the government could collapse, and new elections would be held.
SHAPIRO: So you say it's a very shaky - Netanyahu is trying to undermine it. What are the chances that this falls through? I mean, what do you see happening in the next few days?
ESTRIN: There are chances that it could fall through. This government still needs a vote of confidence in parliament before it is sworn in. And the parliament speaker is a Netanyahu ally. He is expected to delay the vote, hold it in about 12 days' time. And that gives Netanyahu and his right-wing allies more time to try to thwart this.
There is already intense, intense pressure on right-wing religious nationalist lawmakers, Jewish lawmakers, not to join this government with leftists and Arab Islamists. And we are seeing protests outside these lawmakers' homes. If just one or two of them get cold feet and don't vote in favor of this coalition, then it probably means we'll see repeat elections.
SHAPIRO: I know it's the middle of the night there, but you've been covering this for a long time. How do you think Israelis feel about it?
ESTRIN: It's really polarized. I mean, those on the center left see this as, like, Netanyahu's last stand. And he's trying to barricade himself in office and facing corruption charges. And they think this right-wing Bennett is not an ideal prime minister, but the best opportunity to rid Israel of Netanyahu. But those Israelis on the right, many of them see Bennett as a traitor for joining a government with leftists and Islamists for the...
SHAPIRO: All right.
ESTRIN: ...First time in Israel's history. So this just shows Israel's polarized society.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, thank you.
ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.