In a dramatic decision Thursday that remakes Israel’s coalition-building arithmetic, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett ruled out the option of forming a government with Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid that would replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing the rioting and chaos unfolding throughout Israel as extremist Arab and Jewish mobs vandalize and terrorize numerous cities.
A political source told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity that Bennett has renewed his negotiations with Likud due to the emergency situation, and teams from both parties met Thursday.
Until the conflict with Gaza broke out this week, and the subsequent Jewish-Arab violence ensued, Bennett had been in advanced stages of forming a power-sharing government with Lapid, with the support of the Islamist Ra’am party.
However, Ra’am halted the talks, as the conflict with Hamas in Gaza escalated.
Bennett explained in private conversations Thursday that he believed a government dependent on the Arab party could not face the challenges at hand.
“When there is a wave of pogroms by Arabs across the country, and when IDF forces must be involved, this is a reality-changing event,” he said, according to the source. “The ‘change government’ being formed won’t be able to deal with that.”
He said the security situation was the top priority and that he was working to form a “broad national unity government.”
Channel 12 news reported that Bennett had reached a deal with Netanyahu and Abbas for both Yamina and Ra’am to support the premier’s initiative to hold direct elections for prime minister, which Netanyahu has been seeking as a way to break the political deadlock and cement his power.
As part of the reported deal, Bennett and his No. 2 Ayelet Shaked would get reserved spots on the electoral slate of Netanyahu’s Likud party and would be made defense and foreign ministers.
Hebrew media reports said Bennett’s volte face was imposed by Shaked, who told him she would not be part of the planned coalition with Likud because of the eruption of fighting with Hamas and the escalating Arab-Jewish internal violence in Israel. A Kan radio report said Netanyahu was aiming to secure the Justice Ministry for Likud under the deal, as he sees to extricate himself from his corruption trial; hence the reported offer of the prized Foreign Ministry portfolio to Shaked, a former justice minister who had hoped to regain that post.
It is still not clear what kind of coalition Netanyahu would be hoping to form, unless he can convince other parties, such as New Hope, to join him. New Hope has vowed before and since the last election not to do so, but could be under renewed pressure to reverse its position due to the national crisis. On Thursday night, New Hope said there had been shift in its position. MKs in Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party said it too was sticking with the so-called change bloc
Reacting to Bennett’s decision, Lapid — who is currently tasked with forming a government and has until June 2 to do so — vowed to continue his efforts.
“Bennett is wrong, I will continue turning over every stone to form a government,” Lapid says in a press conference. “Change isn’t done when it’s convenient, it’s done when the path is the right one. I will keep working to form a government, and if needed, we will go to more elections and win.”
Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas told Channel 12 that Bennett had updated him on his decision. He said he did not rule out supporting direct elections, and that the party would consider such a proposal if it included a deal that would be sufficiently beneficial to the Arab public.
Abbas had said earlier Thursday that all coalition negotiations with his party to help establish a government would remain frozen due to the ongoing violence between Jewish and Arab Israelis throughout the country.
“This is not the time,” he told Army Radio, after the worst night of internal Jewish-Arab violence in years, with scenes of rioting, hate rallies and social chaos spreading throughout numerous cities, some of which were once seen as symbols of coexistence.
“There needs to be calm,” Abbas said, condemning the violence on both sides. Though he did not rule out joining a government formed by Lapid, Abbas said it was a matter he could not give any thought to at the moment.
“Right now, I prefer to focus on the crisis we are going through and afterward, we can talk politics,” he said. “There are no political contacts at this time.”
Wednesday saw the worst night of internal Jewish-Arab chaos for years, with scenes of rioting, hate rallies and growing social chaos spreading throughout numerous cities, many of which had been seen as models of coexistence.
Violence between the Jewish and Arab communities spiraled from confrontations in Jerusalem surrounding the month-long Muslim month of Ramadan and clashes on the Temple Mount, and came to a head as Israel engaged in an escalating clash with terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.
At the same time, Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip have been firing barrages of rockets toward Israeli communities since Monday, killing seven people in Israel and injuring dozens.
While Netanyahu’s Likud had sought to use the situation to pry right-wing parties Yamina and New Hope out of the anti-Netanyahu coalition, sources from those parties had noted that more than three weeks remain for the negotiations window, and insisted Tuesday that the talks could go ahead if the violence ended quickly.
A Channel 13 report on Monday claimed a new coalition had been all but finalized when the violence escalated, with Bennett set to serve as prime minister, and Lapid to replace him under a rotation deal later in the term. Lapid and Bennett had reportedly intended to tell President Reuven Rivlin on Monday night that they had managed to muster a coalition, which would have relied on support from Ra’am for its majority, and that it could be sworn in next week.