Bennett, Sa’ar meet to talk unity gov’t, as Shaked said hoping to thwart efforts

Major gaps still reported to remain between the opposing parties that would form a potential power-sharing coalition; PM’s deadline expiring in 6 days

Left to right: Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (Miriam Alster/Flash90); Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett; and New Hope party head Gideon Sa'ar (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Left to right: Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (Miriam Alster/Flash90); Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett; and New Hope party head Gideon Sa'ar (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett and New Hope chief Gideon Sa’ar held lengthy talks at the Knesset on Wednesday to coordinate demands that the right-wing bloc of a prospective unity government will make in negotiations with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.

The two are seeking to wrap up the talks by the start of next week, Kan news reported, while Channel 13 news said Lapid and Bennett have agreed to finalize all ministerial appointments by Saturday evening.

However, the network said it was unclear if Bennett and Lapid will meet the deadline, citing significant gaps that still exist between the sides on expectations, the allocation of ministries and issues of consensus.

According to Channel 12, Lapid and Bennett still haven’t reached an agreement on which of them will receive the government-forming mandate from President Reuven Rivlin if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a government in the next six days. Each is demanding the mandate, with Bennett wanting it so the option of a direct election for the premiership remains on the table. This would represent added leverage in talks with Lapid, as it would mean the Yamina chairman would be leaving open the option of a government with Netanyahu, should he win a potential direct vote. If Lapid gets the mandate, he will shelve the Netanyahu-backed proposal and focus solely on forming a unity government.

Meanwhile Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked has reportedly been working hard against the prospect of a unity government with the center-left. The former justice minister and Bennett’s longtime political partner has been seeking instead to bring about a right-wing government, Channel 12 reported, though there does not appear to be enough support for such an option.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The report said that at the very least, Shaked is hoping to convince the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties to join the Lapid-Bennett coalition, either from the get-go or within the first year or 18 months of its existence.

As part of these efforts, Shaked met Wednesday with UTJ MK Meir Porush to see if the latter’s party would be willing to back or abstain on a vote of confidence in a prospective Bennett-Lapid government, Walla reported.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid during a ceremony at Netiv Ha’avot, at the West Bank’s Elazar settlement, on July 23, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Porush told Shaked UTJ would not do so if Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman — a fierce opponent of the Haredi parties — becomes finance minister, but “there may be something to discuss” if someone else is tapped for the post, the report added.

According to the news site, Shaked has been courting the ultra-Orthodox parties for weeks, preferring to rely on them over Arab parties.

The meeting came against the backdrop of reports in recent days that the primary obstacle to Bennett becoming prime minister in a rotational agreement with Lapid is members from his own party. Hebrew media has reported that at least two MKs from Yamina could well be unwilling to back a unity government, which will include the left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties while likely requiring the outside support of the Islamist Ra’am party as well. Bennett has denied the reports.

In an apparent effort to put to bed reports of disunity within Yamina, the party published a statement earlier this week insisting that all of its MKs were standing loyally behind Bennett in his efforts to prevent a fifth election, and included photos of the chairman leading a faction meeting.

In addition to Shaked, Yamina No. 4 Amichai Chikli has been rumored as another MK who could well split from the party if it goes the unity route. Given that the parties that would potentially form such a coalition — Yesh Atid (17), Blue and White (8), Yamina (7), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Labor (7), Meretz (6) and New Hope (6) — are already three MKs shy of a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, they cannot afford to lose more than a single lawmaker if they only want to rely on the support of Ra’am’s four MKs to swear in a government.

Another potential obstacle to a unity government could be Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, who repeatedly refused in a Wednesday interview with Channel 12 to vow not to join a Netanyahu government. Asked several times whether he ruled it out entirely, Gantz curiously would not do so but would only say “there is no possibility” for such a government. This, despite having long acknowledged that he was duped by the prime minister and insisting that the Likud leader could not be trusted.

Gantz said Netanyahu had phoned him on Wednesday to once again offer that the Blue and White chairman serve first as prime minister in a rotational agreement. But he said he also told the prime minister that this was “not possible.”

Analysts Channel 12 were divided as to whether Gantz had simply made an on-air gaffe, was still seriously considering cooperating with Netanyahu despite all of the bad blood between them, or was seeking to improve his negotiating position with Lapid and Bennett, so that they don’t take his partnership for granted. Gantz even said he planned to demand that both the defense and justice portfolios remain with his party in the next government.

Earlier Wednesday, Bennett met with Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas in the first-ever sit-down between the leaders of the two parties, amid ongoing efforts to form a government without Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Bennett’s right-wing party and Abbas’s Islamist faction have initiated unlikely cooperation lately in the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, and the ties have gained steam as Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government nears its end.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, leads a faction meeting, in the Israeli parliament on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Both parties are the only ones that in last month’s elections refused to back either Netanyahu’s right wing-religious bloc or the rival “change bloc” that seeks to oust him.

Ra’am said in a statement following the meeting at Bennett’s Knesset office that the discussion dealt with the positions of both parties regarding the current political events, and was “conducted in a positive atmosphere.”

Bennett before the election had called on Netanyahu to pledge not to form a government reliant on Ra’am, while he himself vowed not to make a rotation deal with Lapid.

Should no government be formed, the country will head to its fifth election in two and a half years.

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