Right wing leaders hold dueling press conferences

Bennett: If Netanyahu can’t build coalition, I’ll try to form a unity government

Yamina chair rips PM for holding Israel hostage, pushing for ‘5th, 6th, 7th election’; Netanyahu says Bennett cut a deal to be right-wing ‘head of a pin’ PM of left-wing coalition

Left: Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 21, 2021; Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 21, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Left: Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 21, 2021; Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 21, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a coalition still in dire straits Wednesday, he and Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett held dueling press conferences in which they accused each other of putting their own personal interests above the needs of the country, and of misleading the public.

Speaking first in a prime time address as the country’s three major new networks held their evening broadcasts, Bennett tore into Netanyahu for “holding the country hostage” and being willing to keep the country in a perpetual cycle of elections. A short time later, the prime minister charged that the Yamina head had cut a deal to serve as a fig leaf prime minister for a left-wing government.

Bennett said that while he continued to support Netanyahu’s efforts to form a right-wing government, if he could not do so in the final two weeks of his mandate, Bennett will work to build a “national unity government” — presumably one that would leave Likud in the opposition.

His remarks came after several hostile statements from Likud on Tuesday and Wednesday accused him of siding with the left against Netanyahu.

Bennett has in fact expressed willingness to back a Netanyahu-led government and has been holding intensive negotiations with Likud in recent weeks to do so. Last week he stated that “Likud can count on the votes of the Yamina party in favor of forming a right-wing government.” On Monday he voted with Likud on its proposal for the makeup of a powerful interim Knesset committee — a vote the two parties lost.

But Yamina’s support is not enough for Netanyahu to form a government. The prime minister also needs Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party or the Islamist Ra’am party to fall in line. Sa’ar has stated that he will not serve under Netanyahu under any circumstance, while far-right Religious Zionism has refused to cooperate with Ra’am, whose support would also be needed. As a result, unless those stances change, Netanyahu is left with virtually no shot at forming a government.

While Bennett has been in coalition talks with Netanyahu, he has kept up contact with Lapid and the two could have enough support to form an alternative government of their own with parties across the political spectrum.

“The people of Israel want and need a stable government,” Bennett said in his evening address. “There are people who need to earn a living and return from furlough, children who need to return a school, citizens are sick of the infighting… They just want a government that works for them.”

Bennett said that after Netanyahu was officially tasked two weeks ago with forming a government, he told the Likud chief he could rely on Yamina’s backing for a right-wing government. However, he said Netanyahu has wasted that time and has not been willing to offer a reasonable compromise to allow for Sa’ar’s New Hope party to join the government and allow for a right-wing coalition.

“He’s pushing for only one thing, more elections, this time packaged as direct elections [for prime minister]. He’s saying ‘If I don’t have a government, nobody will have a government; we’ll have elections — 5th and 6th and 7th,’” Bennett said.

“This cannot go on. Israel cannot be held hostage by politicians,” he continued. “More elections means more wasted billions… more long months of divisive discourse… While the country wants a government, Netanyahu prefers another election. I won’t allow this to happen.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-defense minister and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a meeting with the heads of right-wing parties in the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He said the attacks on him by Netanyahu and Likud “do not impress me,” and that his first priority is for a right-wing government to be formed. “Netanyahu, it is possible,” Bennett insisted.

But if Likud fails, then his second preference is “a national unity government,” presumably with Yesh Atid’s Lapid. Though Bennett had pledged ahead of the election not to serve in a government under Lapid, he was now apparently declaring potential readiness to at least partner with Lapid in a coalition.

However, Bennett clarified that he will only join such a government if it is “good and stable” and allows him “to safeguard my values and worldview.” He admitted to not knowing whether that will be possible, but vowed to do everything he could to prevent another election.

Shortly after Bennett spoke, Netanyahu delivered his own televised address in which he repeatedly rebuffed and lashed out at his right-wing rival.

Netanyahu claimed Bennett has already cut a deal with Lapid to be prime minister of a left-wing government. He said Bennett would be the right-wing “head of a pin” of such a government, that would be mostly comprised of the left. (Actually, in the most likely scenario, there would be 20 seats for the right from Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu; 25 for the center from Yesh Atid, Blue and White; and 13 for the left from Labor and Meretz.)

Yamina, he noted, only won seven seats in last month’s election, yet Bennett’s “unbridled personal ambition” to be prime minister was blinding him to the “destruction” he would inflict on the Israeli right.

Netanyahu asserted that if Bennett truly wanted a right-wing government despite the ongoing political deadlock, the solution was simple: he must support the new proposal by Likud and its ultra-Orthodox allies to hold snap, direct elections for the premiership.

If such an election were held, it could buy Netanyahu more time as prime minister and help consolidate his power. However, it would not change the party divisions in the Knesset, and he would still be short of a clear majority. Pundits have speculated Netanyahu hopes to use a victory in such an election to pressure Sa’ar to join him, as well as to end his power-sharing deal with Blue and White, which remains in effect so long as a new permanent government has not been formed.

“The majority of the public wants me to lead the country as head of a right-wing government,” Netanyahu claimed, noting that right-wing parties won a clear majority in the March 23 elections (though he neglected to mention that two of those parties — New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu — have repeatedly refused to join a government he leads). Yamina also campaigned against Netanyahu over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has not explicitly ruled out a government headed by him.

“You’re doing everything not to form a right-wing government,” Netanyahu said of Bennett. “You’re prepared to do anything to become prime minister with just seven seats. And the only way for you to do that is to head a left-wing government of Lapid, Meretz and Labor with the support of the [majority Arab] Joint List.”

He did not list the Islamist Ra’am party, which Likud itself has been wooing, despite Netanyahu pledging before the elections not to rely on its support.

Current parliamentary math shows neither side is likely to be able to form a coalition without at least tacit support from Ra’am.

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

“You call [what you’re negotiating with Lapid] a unity government. What misrepresentation. What a transparent effort to fool the public. It’s a government with 50 left-wing and extreme left-wing MKs, together with you, a head of a pin, with seven seats,” he said, once again grouping the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu and New Hope with the left.

“There’s been nothing like this in the history of the state. It’s a spit in the face of democracy, a spit in the face of the promises that you made not to sit with Lapid,” he continued, noting that Bennett had even signed a declaration on live television before the election in which he vowed not to sit in a government under Lapid.

He noted that Bennett had said before the election that it would be “undemocratic and immoral” to demand the premiership with less than 10 seats, as he was currently doing in negotiations with Lapid.

“How can one take what you say seriously when you are tricking the public?” Netanyahu asked. “You call yourself Yamina (‘rightward’ in Hebrew) but you are actually heading Smola (‘leftward’).”

He then went on to quote verbatim a statement attacking Bennett that Likud released earlier Wednesday.

“You didn’t hold negotiations [with us],” said Netanyahu, addressing Bennett directly now. “You only sought a rotational agreement.”

Party leaders Naftali Bennett (left) and Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

“While the mandate was with us, you sealed a deal with Lapid,” he charged.

Recent news reports have indicated that Bennett and Lapid are at odds over the terms of a potential coalition alliance.

“Enough games, enough tricking the public,” Netanyahu said of Bennett. “You are what’s causing [Likud] to fail. if you really wanted, you’d back direct elections.”

Strikingly, Netanyahu also claimed that were he to win a direct-election vote, he would then “automatically” set up the next government, as he said is the case in many democracies.

This is not the case in Israel, however, where the law requires that, in order to take office, a coalition must win a Knesset majority. That law would presumably have to be amended as well under Netanyahu’s plan, with the support of 61 members of Knesset.

Netanyahu’s fiery speech quickly drew scorn from his political opponents.

“To hear Netanyahu talk about not honoring promises, defrauding the public and of a power-sharing government being a problem… there is no limit to [his] duplicity,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.

The Yesh Atid chief was referring to the prime minister’s short-lived unity government with Blue and White, whose dissolution in December over the failure to pass a budget triggered the fourth elections in two years. Under the power-sharing deal with Benny Gantz, Netanyahu committed to pass a two-year budget but later reversed himself.

“Bibi, a spit in the face is taking Israeli citizens to elections for personal motives, preventing a state budget at a time of economic crisis and allowing the country to remain without a prime minister because of your trial,” Gantz tweeted, using the prime minister’s nickname.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in ceremony for the 24th Knesset, April 6, 2021 (Knesset spokesperson)

New Hope MK Dani Dayan unfavorably compared Netanyahu’s bid for direct elections to Donald Trump’s efforts to reverse his loss to US President Joe Biden in the American presidential elections, culminating in the January 6 storming of the US Capitol.

Dani Dayan of the New Hope party at his home in Maaleh Shomron, February 8, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“This needs to be said clearly: What Netanyahu is doing after the elections in Israel is more severe than what Trump did after the US elections. Trump contested the counting of votes. Netanyahu is contesting the system of governance,” Dayan said in a tweet.

He added: “We need to hope that Netanyahu’s supporters are less violent than Trump’s supporters and the Knesset Guard is better than the Capitol Police.”

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