A secular liberal, a right-wing nationalist and an Islamist walked into a Tel Aviv conference center.
For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it was not just the start of a bad joke but perhaps the beginning of the end of his 12-year grip on power.
Captured in a photo that immediately went viral on social media, the unlikely trio of party leaders grinned widely Wednesday night as they finalized a pact to topple their leader and form a new national unity government.
On one side of the low coffee table sat Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Across from him, Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List, made history as the first Arab party to join an Israeli governing coalition.
Between them, perhaps the most unlikely player of all: Naftali Bennett, a right-wing hard-liner who has called for annexation of much of the occupied West Bank. Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first two years of the new government’s term before handing the role over to Lapid in 2023.
The three have almost nothing in common, except a shared desire to bring Netanyahu’s reign to an end.
Just 38 minutes before a midnight deadline Wednesday, at 11:22 p.m. local time (4:22 p.m. ET), each leader signed the coalition agreement, along with five other parties from across the political spectrum including hard-liners previously allied with Netanyahu and center-left parties.
Then Lapid made a brief telephone call to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to inform him that he had succeeded in forming a government.
“The government will do everything it can to unite every part of Israeli society,” Lapid said.
For some Israelis, the photograph of the three leaders represented a hopeful moment, a sign that despite their ideological differences, they could compromise for the good of the country and break the endless cycle of four inconclusive elections in two years.
A crowd outside the convention center cheered at the sight of Jewish and Arab politicians working together just weeks after a wave of communal unrest in several Israeli cities, which saw rival Arab and Jewish mobs carrying out beatings and torching cars during the recent Israeli conflict with Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip.
But for many on the right, the image captures a moment of betrayal by Bennett, whom they have accused of abandoning his nationalist allies.
“The Faces of Shame,” boomed the headline of The Way, a newspaper associated with Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish political party.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, announced Thursday that it was stepping up security for Bennett, who has faced a wave of threats on social media after rumors about his plans for a coalition started to emerge.
One image shows him wearing a Palestinian headdress known as a keffiyeh, which is similar to a right-wing poster from the 1990s showing former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the same garb. Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995.
Abbas also faced criticism from some Palestinian citizens of Israel, also known as Arab Israelis, for not securing more immediate concessions in return for his support of the coalition.
One of his stated goals was rolling back the so-called Kaminitz Law, legislation that tightens penalties for building without permits. Human rights groups say the law disproportionately affects Palestinian citizens, who often struggle to secure permission from Israeli authorities. It was unclear whether he had achieved this.
Israel’s 2 million-strong Arab minority is about 20 percent of the country’s population of 9.2 million. Descendants of Palestinians who stayed in the country after 1948 are Israeli citizens, but many identify with the Palestinian cause.
The new coalition will only take power if it can survive a confidence vote in the Israeli parliament. The coalition has a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament, so there is no margin for error.
Netanyahu is likely to try to convince the coalition’s more right-wing members to change sides and vote with him.
“In the coming week and a half he will engage in guerrilla warfare, in which shots will be fired in every possible direction,” wrote Matti Tuchfeld, a commentator with the conservative Israel Today newspaper.
His most likely target is Nir Orbach, a member of Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, who previously expressed doubts about joining a coalition with parties from the left.
But after Bennett met with him on Thursday, Orbach wrote on Twitter that he would “do everything” to make the coalition work.
The coalition’s votes will first have to hold together to name a new parliament speaker, who would then preside over a vote required to confirm the new government. If the group can’t manage that, the current speaker, who is a Netanyahu ally, could use his position to delay the vote and give him more time to sabotage the coalition.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
As the coalition was coming together, Netanyahu and his supporters ramped up a pressure campaign against former hawkish allies, including Bennett and his No. 2 in the Yamina party, Ayelet Shaked.
Netanyahu has displayed an unrivaled ability to cling to power through conflict, corruption charges and countless elections. Long a polarizing figure, he has found himself increasingly isolated since he was indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in late 2019. His trial began earlier this year.
But he has alienated many supporters and former allies like Bennett who have run against him in recent elections.
His political skills have nonetheless earned him the nickname “The Magician,” and he has been counted out of Israeli politics before only to bounce back.
But time is running out for him to produce another trick from his sleeve, and his rivals are preparing to take center stage.