Amid reports of progress, Lapid, Bennett said seeking coalition in coming week

Yamina leader says there is ‘good’ atmosphere but warns serious differences remain between parties; sides said arguing over ministries and other key roles

Yamina party head Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset on May 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina party head Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset on May 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina party chair Naftali Bennett and the leaders of the so-called change bloc in the Knesset have made progress in talks on forming a government, according to multiple reports Friday, and hope to seal the matter in the coming week — though numerous difficulties remain.

According to an unsourced report by Kan news, the general mechanisms and basic principles by which such a government would operate have been largely agreed upon, and the main issue of contention is now the distribution of ministries and Knesset posts in the coalition.

Comments made by Bennett Friday afternoon indicated ideological issues may still be a key bone of contention, as he described differences that “are not easy to bridge” between the seven disparate parties making up the unlikely coalition that would remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power after 12 years.

According to Channel 12 news, Yamina has given its potential partners an ultimatum that Bennett’s close ally Ayelet Shaked must be appointed justice minister or there will be no deal. Shaked served in the post in 2015-2019.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked at the Knesset on April 26, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The justice portfolio is currently also being demanded by New Hope party chief Gideon Sa’ar. Sa’ar had preferred the defense portfolio, but Blue and White’s Benny Gantz is insisting on retaining that.

Channel 12 said Yamina is demanding most of the top so-called “ideological” portfolios in the government, including justice, religious affairs, public security and education, leaving few top posts for other parties.

The Education Ministry specifically is a sticking point, with the left-wing Meretz party’s Nitzan Horowitz demanding the post, while New Hope wants it for its own Yifat Shasha-Biton.

The parties were also reported by Haaretz to be considering a rotation of the Knesset speakership between Yesh Atid’s Meir Cohen and New Hope’s Ze’ev Elkin.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, who this week received the presidential mandate to try to form a government, is leading negotiations on behalf of the center-left. The sides are believed to have agreed that Bennett will serve as prime minister for the government’s first two years, with Lapid serving for the latter two. Lapid would be foreign minister in Bennett’s cabinet, with Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman as finance minister.

Yesh Atid party chair Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

The “change bloc” coalition-building efforts hang by a thread, however, as opposition from any single MK could scupper them: Yamina MK Amichai Chikli on Thursday vowed not to back a coalition with the left, meaning the prospective change bloc, with Yamina, currently has 57 seats in parliament. Outside support from Ra’am — which is essential — would give the bloc 61 seats in the 120-seat legislature.

Any further defections in Bennett’s party could thus doom the effort — though the other Yamina MKs on Thursday publicly declared their backing for the leader.

In a Facebook post Friday afternoon, Bennett said the atmosphere in negotiations was “good” but stressed that “the differences are not easy to bridge.” He added: “I think it’s obvious that I’m willing to go far and to pay a personal political price with my base, if only a government can be formed.”

Bennett said he did not know if the effort would succeed but that he would “try with all my might” to prevent a fifth election. He added, however, that “there are core principles I will not give up, red lines I will not cross.”

Prior to Lapid getting the mandate, Netanyahu himself was given first shot, for 28 days, but failed to convince enough Knesset members to back his coalition. Bennett himself had committed to back Netanyahu if he could cobble together a government, but Netanyahu was unable to convince the hard-right Religious Zionism to join, as in order to reach a majority in the 120-seat Knesset he needed to rely on the support of the Islamist Ra’am party from outside the coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Still, Netanyahu and his supporters are now savaging Bennett for supposedly betraying his principles. Bennett on Friday said such “bellicose discourse is exactly why the public has not given us a majority, time after time.

“The public is tired of this style, these personal assaults, this marking of traitors, this clinging to power at any price. We are at the point where we must choose — to continue to batter one another until the country breaks, or to start to mend things.”

As for Ra’am, Kan news reported Friday that in exchange for its support, the Arab party is demanding leadership of a key Knesset committee — either internal affairs or economic affairs; annulment of a 2019 law against illegal construction that Arabs say disproportionately targets them; a solution for Bedouin communities in the Negev; a five-year economic plan for the Arab public; a plan for combating violent crime in the Arab public.

Friday saw Lapid and Bennett hold a series of meetings with party leaders. In a joint statement the two said meetings “were all held in good spirits and with a desire to move forward.”

Bennett met separately with Labor party leader Merav Michaeli at her home in Tel Aviv before he and Lapid met with Blue and White chief Gantz. The two also held meetings with Meretz leader Horowitz and Yisrael Beiteinu chief Liberman.

Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli speaks during a meeting in Tel Aviv, March 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The “change bloc” of parties is said to be formulating laws that would allow the wide range of factions to work together.

With parties from all over the political spectrum united in their aim to replace Netanyahu, the sides would likely need to make baseline agreements.

While acknowledging the difficulties in forming a unity government, Lapid said on Thursday that his coalition “will have a simple goal: to take the country out of this crisis — the coronavirus crisis, the economic crisis, the political crisis and mostly the crisis within us, within the people of Israel.”

President Reuven Rivlin (R) meets Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, May 5, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

If Lapid fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends June 2, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse any Knesset member as prime minister. If that 21-day period fails to yield a coalition, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a fifth election in two and a half years.

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