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Change bloc said close to deal, including top positions

Bennett: I’m making intensive efforts to form a national unity government

Yamina leader says ‘change bloc’ government will not be any more left-wing than coalitions Netanyahu set up with Barak, Livni; concedes it will not annex West Bank areas

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett said Friday that he was involved in intensive efforts and countless meetings to set up a national unity government, and had been working on this since coming to the conclusion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has no intention” of making the necessary compromises to establish a right-wing government. He said he was by no means certain that the efforts would actually bear fruit.

Bennett, who has repeatedly said he prefers a right-wing government led by Netanyahu, wrote in a Facebook post that he was focusing his efforts on setting up a government with the so-called “change bloc” of parties that oppose Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has repeatedly tried to tarnish the diverse group of parties as radical leftists, but Bennett wrote that any government that would be established would be no further left than previous Netanyahu governments.

“A national unity government won’t fulfill all my dreams, but it won’t be less right-wing than governments Netanayhu formed with Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni or Avi Nissenkorn,” he wrote.

However, he conceded that a unity government would not achieve his long-held goals of annexing parts of the West Bank or carrying out judicial reforms. “But it won’t give up land either,” he said.

Bennett said it was still not clear if they would manage to forge a government that would include the right-wing Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu, the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White, and the left-wing Labor and Meretz. It would also need outside support from at least one Arab party or one of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman (L) talks with then-Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid in the cafeteria of the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Bennett said he would only agree to such a government if he received assurances and veto power over key issues and specific ministries. But he said there were enough common areas for such a government to work on.

Channel 12 news reported Friday that the parties were at an advanced stage of agreeing on the foundations of the government, including dividing up key portfolios.

The report said Bennett would be prime minister, Lapid foreign minister, Liberman would get finance and Sa’ar would be defense minister, but stressed that discussions were not final.

Channel 13, meanwhile reported that Blue and White’s Benny Gantz would retain the defense ministry and Sa’ar would take the justice portfolio.

Bennett, in his post, also accused Netanyahu of being unwilling to make key concessions to set up a preferred right-wing government.

He said Netanyahu could have pressured far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich to accept a government based on the outside support of the Islamist Ra’am party, though he conceded that option was “unpalatable.”

He also said if a right-wing government was so important to Netanyahu he could step aside and let someone else on the right or in Likud form the government, which would bring in Likud-breakaway Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party.

Channel 13 reported that there were actually discussions within Netanyahu’s inner circle to propose that Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz could serve as prime minister for 12-18 months, with Netanyahu serving as an alternate prime minister.

The report said Steinitz was considered statesmanlike and not a threat to other Likud leaders.

But Bennett said Netanyahu was bent on taking Israel to “a 5th, 6th and 7th election.”

Likud responded to Bennett by again trying to paint the “change bloc” as left wing.

“A coalition built on 50 seats made up of the left, far-left and the Joint List is not a national unity government, but a left-wing government with a very small right-wing fig leaf.”

It said if Bennett really wanted a right-wing government he would spend his time working to convince Sa’ar to join or support Netanyahu’s call for a new election to directly elect the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s long-shot bid to hold direct elections for prime minister without a fresh vote for parliament currently lacks sufficient support and would first require amending one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws — necessitating the very parliamentary majority eluding Netanyahu. It would also likely face a formidable legal challenge in the High Court of Justice, as it would entail sweeping legislative reforms by a caretaker government.

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

If Netanyahu fails to form a government by May 4, President Reuven Rivlin will need to either task a second candidate with doing so or send the mandate back to the Knesset to directly choose a lawmaker to do the job.

Should neither bloc establish a government, Israel would head to what would be its fifth election within three years.

The reports on agreements being reached in the “change bloc” come a day after reports that they have reached understandings on numerous issues, including on religion and state.

Bennett and Lapid, along with Liberman’s right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, agreed that a government they form should adopt the position of the liberal Orthodox Tzohar rabbinic group on religious matters, such as allowing municipal rabbis to perform conversions and ending the state rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification, according to Channel 12.

The unsourced report noted the effort to reach an agreement on religious issues could diffuse divides between the disparate factions that would make up the coalition, ranging from the right-wing Yamina to the left-wing Meretz.

Such understandings would likely face fierce opposition from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, key members of Netanyahu’s anti-religious bloc.

A separate television report Thursday said Liberman was insisting that the Haredi factions not be able to join the new government for 18 months, though other party leaders in the anti-Netanyahu bloc were seeking to convince him to drop the demand.

If Shas and United Torah Judaism were to join, Channel 13 news quoted a source in the “change bloc” saying this would happen at the formation of the coalition. The network said that if they do in fact team up with Netanyahu’s rivals, the ultra-Orthodox parties will be given ministerial posts designated for the bloc’s right-wing factions.

Responding to the report, Yamina said Bennett would “not accept a boycott of the ultra-Orthodox during the formation of the government.”

“Bennett will not boycott the ultra-Orthodox or their representatives, nor any group in Israel. Any government in which we participate will take care of all Israeli citizens, and will not negatively label any population group,” a spokesperson for the party said Friday.

Liberman was previously a senior governing partner of Netanyahu’s, but the two fell out after the April 2019 elections over Yisrael Beytenu stipulating their joining a coalition would be on conditions rejected by the ultra-Orthodox — helping trigger Israel’s two-year-long political impasse.

Haredi parties have long reviled opposition leader Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which has touted secularist policies and opposed ongoing ultra-Orthodox control on many levers of power. However, UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni recently signaled his party may be less resolutely opposed to Lapid than before with Netanyahu lacking any clear path to reaching a ruling majority following the March 23 elections, the fourth in two years.

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