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Lapid calls for 'an Israeli unity government'

56 MKs back Lapid for PM, including right-wing New Hope, as Rivlin resumes talks

Yamina backs Bennett, but rebel Yamina MK says he’ll object to emerging right-center-left government; Joint List backs Lapid; pro-Netanyahu bloc and Ra’am make no recommendation

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

Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party said Wednesday that it would tell President Reuven Rivlin that it recommends that Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid form the next government, greatly increasing the opposition chief’s chances of being handed the mandate after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to muster a majority coalition in his allocated time.

In the previous round of consultations with Rivlin last month, Sa’ar’s six-member party didn’t back anyone as premier.

Additionally, the majority of the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties also chose to back Lapid this time around, saying that it preferred him to any of the other options.

The addition of New Hope and five of Joint List’s six Knesset members has now boosted Lapid’s bloc of backers from 45 to 56, including Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu.

The parties backed Lapid as prime minister when they met Rivlin for consultations aimed at deciding whom to task with forming a new government, a day after Netanyahu announced that he had failed.

Rivlin met Lapid — who reiterated his request to be tasked with forming a government — and then Naftali Bennett, who heads the seven-seat Yamina and is reportedly set to go first as prime minister in an emerging rotation deal with Lapid for a unity government. Similar to the last time they met, Bennett recommended himself for the task, meaning he has 7 recommendations to Lapid’s 56.

Reports said Rivlin may also meet Lapid and Bennett together.

The bloc of parties that supported Netanyahu in the previous round of consultations — Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas and Religious Zionism — told Rivlin they recommend nobody and asked the president to send the mandate back to the Knesset.

Ra’am also didn’t recommend a candidate, but told Rivlin it would negotiate “in a positive manner” with whoever is tasked and could add the support of its four MKs if its demands are met.

The Joint List told Rivlin that MK Sami Abou Shehadeh, the head of the Arab nationalist Balad sub-faction, would not be recommending anyone, while the party’s five other lawmakers were backing Lapid.

The alliance of three predominantly Israeli Arab parties said in a letter to Rivlin that between backing Lapid, Yamina chief Naftali Bennett or recommending the mandate to form a government go to the Knesset, it “prefers to task MK Yair Lapid with the mandate.”

However, the letter added: “The Joint List emphasizes that it doesn’t support a government led by MK Naftali Bennett and will continue to have contacts with MK Yair Lapid.”

As he emerged from his meeting with Rivlin, Lapid told reporters: “We will do everything to form an Israeli unity government.”

Entering his own meeting, Bennett said: “With God’s help, we will form a good government for the nation of Israel.” Like Lapid, during his meeting with Rivlin Bennett reiterated his previous request to receive the mandate.

Even if Lapid is handed the mandate, the rival bloc of parties faces a tough task to bring together all its disparate groups and build a Knesset majority. Netanyahu continues as transitional prime minister for the time being.

New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Negotiations suffered another setback Wednesday when Yamina MK Amichai Chikli announced his objection to the emerging Bennett-Lapid government.

In a letter addressed to Bennett that was leaked to Hebrew media, Chikli said he agreed that a change in the country’s leadership was necessary and a fifth round of elections since April 2019 would be “very bad,” but said he wouldn’t support averting them “at all costs.”

He said he objected to “the serial violation of express promises to our voters,” which included forming a right-wing government, not sitting in a coalition with the left-wing Meretz party, and not crowning Lapid as prime minister even in a rotation deal.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

He also rejected the prospect of joining forces with parties that campaigned mostly on promises to oust Netanyahu. “What do we have to do with the spirit of hate, with the Black Flags?” he asked, referring to a group organizing protests against the longtime premier.

He argued that such a government would be “in direct opposition to the basic identity of the Yamina party,” and asked Bennett to reconsider the move and find “better, more ethical and more right-wing alternatives.”

Just two days ago, Chikli denied there was a split in Yamina and said: “I stand behind Bennett and trust him.”

Yamina said it “respects” Chikli’s position, but vowed to “form a stable and functioning government to prevent a descent to the chaos of fifth elections.”

Reports have claimed one or two other Yamina MKs agree with Chikli but haven’t yet made their stance public.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc has continued to pressure Yamina into refusing to partner with the left-wing and centrist parties that make up the so-called “change bloc” together with the right-wing New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu.

Late Tuesday, Rabbi Chaim Druckman, seen as a main spiritual leader of the national-religious camp, which Bennett is a part of, urged him not to join a government with Lapid.

“I really appreciate and admire Naftali Bennett. He needs to say unequivocally, ‘I won’t form a left-wing government’ that will destroy a lot,” Druckman told Channel 12 news.

Netanyahu shared a clip of the video on his Twitter account. “Naftali, [Yamina No. 2 Ayelet] Shaked, listen to Rabbi Druckman,” Netanyahu tweeted.

Rabbi Haim Drukman (L) Naftali Bennett (C) and Bezalel Smotrich attend the campaign launch of the right-wing Yamina party, ahead of the Israeli general elections, February 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Meanwhile, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party, a coalition that includes the extreme right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and the anti-LGBT Noam party, urged the right to keep fighting, saying “nothing is over.” He welcomed Chikli’s announcement and said he had read it “with tears in my eyes.”

It was Smotrich’s refusal to enter a government dependent on outside support from the Islamist Ra’am party that ultimately scuppered Netanyahu’s efforts to form a coalition, even though publicly the prime minister blamed only Yamina.

Netanyahu formally returned the government-forming mandate to Rivlin a few minutes before the deadline expired Tuesday night, and the president now has three days to decide how best to proceed.

In a statement, Likud blamed Bennett for blocking Netanyahu’s route to a majority. “Because of Bennett’s refusal to commit to a right-wing government, a move that would definitely have led to the establishment of a government with additional MKs joining, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned the mandate to the president,” Likud said as the midnight deadline passed.

Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for a record-breaking 12 consecutive years, after a three-year term from 1996-9, was given first chance at building a government after the deadlocked March 23 elections — Israel’s fourth elections in two years.

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

The president can now give the mandate to another MK. He can also send the mandate to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to find a candidate backed by 61 or more of the 120 MKs; if that failed, Israel would automatically head to its fifth election since April 2019.

Hebrew media reports citing senior political sources have predicted that Lapid will be given the next opportunity to form a government, as he had the second-most recommendations after Netanyahu when Rivlin consulted with party representatives last month. The Likud leader was given the first opportunity to cobble together a coalition on April 6, after receiving 52 recommendations versus Lapid’s 45.

Lapid and Bennett have been negotiating coalition terms in recent weeks, reportedly closing in on agreements in many areas, with the Yesh Atid leader ready to let Bennett serve first as prime minister in a “unity government.” The capacity of the so-called “change bloc” of anti-Netanyahu parties to win a Knesset majority is not straightforward, since parties of radically diverse ideologies would need to back it. However, the fact that Likud tried to woo the conservative Islamist party Ra’am into supporting a Netanyahu-led coalition would appear to have broken a historic taboo on Arab parties holding a determining role in the establishment of an Israeli government.

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