Bennett, Sa’ar stress gaps in unity talks; Lapid insists they’re bridgeable

‘Change bloc’ faction heads assemble in Knesset with only eight days remaining for Netanyahu to form a government

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)

The leaders of the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties expressed caution over ongoing negotiations to form a unity government on Monday, admitting that significant gaps remained between them and the centrist Yesh Atid party, whose leader insisted that they are still bridgeable.

The comments were made to reporters at the opening of weekly faction meetings at the Knesset, which were held with eight days remaining for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try and form a government before he is required to return the mandate to do so to President Rivlin.

Yamina chair Naftali Bennett and New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar both said that they would prefer that a right-wing government be formed, even in the coming eight days before Netanyahu must return the mandate. However, while Bennett said he would be thrilled if Netanyahu managed to cobble together a coalition, Sa’ar maintained his position that he would not serve under the Likud leader and that the premier would have to step aside.

While admitting it wasn’t their ideal scenario, Bennett and Sa’ar both said that they were prepared to join a unity coalition with Yesh Atid and the left-leaning Labor and Meretz parties.

Yamina chair Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There are gaps, it will not be easy,” Bennett said in his prepared remarks before the media at the opening of Yamina’s faction meeting.

“It requires a lot of moderation and restraint from all sides. We insist that the government reflect the will of the people and the composition of the Knesset,” he added, referring to the parliamentary makeup of roughly 60 percent right-wing lawmakers from Likud (30), Shas (9), United Torah Judaism (7), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Yamina (7), Religious Zionism (6) and New Hope (6). Bennett has pushed in negotiations with Lapid, who leads the bloc of parties seeking to oust Netanyahu, that the right have a majority in the cabinet, even if the government consists of a larger number of left-wing and centrist lawmakers.

Bennett appeared to be coordinating his message with Sa’ar, who said, “There are difficulties in forming a unity government. I can’t say if a government like this will be formed, but it is important to pursue this effort until the end. We have an obligation to do everything to prevent fifth elections.”

Asked if he would be willing to serve first as premier as part of a power-sharing agreement with Netanyahu, Sa’ar refused to answer. The Likud leader’s allies have reportedly been floating such a prospect as Netanyahu’s potential routes to assembling a coalition appear blocked.

Parroting a line used in recent days by Bennett, Sa’ar said any unity government would have to “safeguard our values and worldview.”

Addressing reporters shortly after Bennett and Sa’ar, Lapid acknowledged that gaps exist in their unity talks, “but we all agree that we need a full-time functioning government.”

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

Insisting that a fifth election in two years would be catastrophic for the Israeli economy, Lapid said that it would be possible to reach an agreement to form a unity government within a week or ten days. “We, for our part, will do everything,” he said.

The Yesh Atid leader later said that the position of Knesset speaker, which is currently held by Likud’s Yariv Levin, needs to be controlled by his party in order to safeguard democracy.

Once the mandate is returned, Rivlin will have several options, including tasking the next lawmaker in line — opposition leader Lapid.

There had reportedly been some progress in talks between Bennett and Lapid, whose bloc comprises an assortment of left-wing, centrist, and right-wing parties with dramatically different worldviews on some key national issues. Lapid, who wants there to be no more than 20 ministers in the government, has agreed to Bennett and Sa’ar’s demand that there be more, though just how many is still disputed, Channel 13 reported.

There are also disputes over the control of key ministries. Though Channel 13 reported that there is agreement among the parties that Gantz would remain defense minister, the Kan public broadcaster said that Sa’ar wants the post. The Justice Ministry is being chased by New Hope, Yamina, and some of the left-wing parties in the bloc, while the Labor and Yisrael Beytenu parties are haggling over the Finance Ministry, Kan reported. Also, the Education Ministry is being contested by New Hope and the left-wing Meretz party, according to the station.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid in the Knesset on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Bennett-Lapid government would be based on a rotation of the premiership between Lapid and Bennett, according to Hebrew media reports. However, Bennett is said to be facing reluctance from within his own right-wing nationalist party to cooperate with Lapid, and some of his Yamina’s seven lawmakers may not agree to join such a coalition, Channel 12 reported. That would further hamper Lapid’s efforts to build a viable coalition.

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

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