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Bennett says ‘divisive’ Netanyahu unsuitable as PM, but won’t rule out cooperation

Outgoing PM says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll run again in next elections; Shaked said to have exhausted all efforts to form an alternative coalition in existing Knesset

Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett insisted Friday that his predecessor and opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is unsuited to once again hold the premiership, but clarified that he would not rule out sitting in a future government headed by the Likud leader.

Bennett, who gave several interviews to Hebrew media, said he has not decided whether or not to run again. He is instead focused on preparing Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to replace him as interim prime minister, as per their coalition agreement, he said.

Bennett and Lapid announced their decision on Monday to advance legislation to dissolve the 24th Knesset after just one year in power due to their inability to keep their narrow, yet politically diverse coalition together any longer.

Bennett’s decision to form a government with Lapid, the left-leaning Meretz faction and the Islamist Ra’am party exposed him to criticism from his right-wing base after he had campaigned on avoiding such partnerships.

He justified the move by noting that he also pledged to act to avoid a fifth consecutive election and that banding with the diverse parties — whose main point in common was a desire to replace Netanyahu — was the only way for him to pull the country out of the election cycle.

But the explanation does not appear to convince many voters, and his party is currently polling between the minimum four or five seats. Against that backdrop, there has been speculation that Bennett would not run again or take a break from politics as several former premiers have done.

Asked where he stood on the matter, Bennett said he would not make his decision until after Lapid has replaced him as prime minister, which could happen as early as Monday if the Knesset finishes passing all four readings of the bill to dissolve itself.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announce the collapse of their coalition, at a joint appearance at the Knesset, June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett went on to claim that his party’s position in the polls is not what is guiding his decision.

“I’ll ask myself one thing only: Whether, given the unprecedented rift in the nation, will my entry to the elections help to unify,” he told Channel 12.

“I’ll ask myself in the next few days if it is good for the state, if it is essential that I play a role. And if the answer is yes, then yes, and if no, it’s not the end of the world.”

“Lots of people say ‘you were a good prime minister, continue, continue, somehow continue,'” he said. “At home, less so,” he added laughing, in recognition of the job’s toll on his family.

Pressed on his approach to the upcoming election if he does decide to run, Bennett expressed his opposition to Netanyahu but refused to rule out future cooperation with him.

“Netanyahu is not the right person [to serve as prime minister]. His behavior is the most divisive behavior I have seen in years,” Bennett argued, citing the “poison machine” he said the Likud leader has unleashed on his political opponents and insisting that it has polluted Israeli politics with falsehoods and nastiness.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing on their lawsuit against former prime minister Ehud Olmert, at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on June 12, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Nonetheless, the premier argued that Netanyahu should not be disqualified from serving as prime minister, in an apparent reference to his opposition to an 11th-hour attempt by his coalition partners to pass legislation barring MKs such as Netanyahu, who have been indicted for serious offenses, from serving as prime minister.

Bennett argued that the public should be able to decide who will be prime minister.

“I will not invalidate anyone. If everyone rejects everyone, we will have no government, and we’ll have to go through four more elections,” he said, differentiating himself from most of his other coalition partners — left, right and center — who have ruled out serving under Netanyahu and view him as a danger to the country.

While elections are almost a sure thing, the coalition still needs to pass the legislation to dissolve the Knesset in order for that to happen.

Several members of Bennett’s Yamina faction have been seeking to preempt the move by forming an alternative coalition within the existing Knesset with help from the right-wing opposition parties.

The effort was always going to be a long shot, as a majority remains in the current parliament of those who refuse to sit with Netanyahu.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with then-minister of justice Ayelet Shaked (L) during a vote at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Bennett’s No. 2 Ayelet Shaked, who is one of the coalition’s most right-wing members, has reportedly been holding marathon calls with various party leaders from both the coalition and opposition in an attempt to pull off the improbable since Bennett made his decision on Monday. Shaked was in Morocco at the time and only returned to Israel on Thursday. She met with Bennett on Friday but no information was released regarding the content of their discussions.

However, both Kan and Channel 12 quoted her as having told confidants that she had exhausted all efforts to form an alternative coalition within the current Knesset.

Both networks also said Shaked hopes to take over the Yamina party if Bennett decides not to run again, though some believe she will follow Bennett in taking a break from politics, given their party’s lack of popularity in the polls.

Regardless, Bennett may prefer to hand over the reins to Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, who has been one of the premier’s most ardent backers over the past year.

Left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on July 14, 2021; Right: Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, on March 7, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As for the other parties in the coalition, Channel 12 reported Friday that Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party extended an offer to Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s right-wing New Hope party to run on a joint slate in the upcoming election. While Blue and White has stabilized at around eight or nine seats in most polls, Sa’ar’s party is barely crossing the electoral threshold. Those behind the proposal believe that a joint run will produce better results than if the two parties were to run separately, the network said.

Separately Friday, Likud MK Miki Zohar said he would have no problem with far-right Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir serving as minister if the Netanyahu-bloc manages to form a government.

Ben Gvir, a disciple of extremist rabbi Meir Kanahe, managed to enter the Knesset for the first time last year thanks to a merger with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union party that was cooked up by Netanyahu.

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