Bennett says Likud can count on his party to back a right-wing government

But Yamina leader warns he will do everything to prevent fifth elections, leaving open option of joining anti-Netanyahu bloc if PM fails to set up a coalition

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on April 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on April 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett said Monday his party supports the formation of a right-wing government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but stressed that averting a fifth round of elections in two years was his overarching goal.

Shortly after making the remarks during his party’s weekly faction meeting at the Knesset, Bennett met with Netanyahu for further coalition negotiations, which lasted some two hours.

“I told Netanyahu and I will say it here, too — Likud can count on the votes of the Yamina party in favor of forming a right-wing government,” Bennett said.

But, he added, “We will work with all our might to prevent the disaster of a fifth round of elections — there are creative ways.” It was an apparent hint that if Netanyahu fails to form a coalition he would instead work with the prime minister’s rivals to establish a government.

Bennett also rejected media reports that his ambitions for a rotation agreement that would see him assume the premiership were keeping Yamina from committing to the Netanyahu-led bloc of parties to form a coalition.

“No position for me is a barrier to establishing a government,” he said. “If my goal was to sit in the prime minister’s chair I could already have done it.”

Yamina, which won seven seats, has been negotiating with Likud over the creation of a government following last month’s inconclusive election, the fourth in two years. Even with its support, a coalition remains unlikely, as such a government would need the support of the Islamist Ra’am party, a prospect utterly rejected by Netanyahu’s allies in the far-right Religious Zionism party.

Bennett and Netanyahu last sat together on Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Defense Minister Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 news reported Friday that Bennett has agreed to rotate the premiership with Netanyahu in a government backed by Ra’am, but only if Religious Zionism leader MK Bezalel Smotrich is on board. The network said, however, that Likud sources were denying Yamina’s assertion that Netanyahu had made Bennett such an offer.

It also reported that, despite all the machinations, Netanyahu believes that Bennett is only going through the motions with him and has already decided to join forces with opposition chief Yair Lapid.

Unnamed senior officials from the Likud party told Kan news on Monday that Netanyahu has given up on the possibility of persuading Religious Zionism to join a coalition supported in any way by the Ra’am party.

According to the report, Netanyahu is now convinced that Smotrich has no intention of changing his mind and agreeing to join a government that would have even the outside backing of Ra’am, and the prime minister will instead turn his attentions to persuading New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar to join his government.

The right-wing New Hope has not ruled out Likud as a party, only Netanyahu, giving rise to scenarios in which Netanyahu relinquishes power and becomes either president or alternate prime minister, enabling Sa’ar’s party to join and form a right-wing majority coalition headed by another Likud member.

President Reuven Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with forming a government last week, after the premier received more recommendations than any other lawmaker from parties that won representation in the Knesset in the March 23 vote.

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope political party, speaks during a Channel 12 News conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu, with 52 recommendations, still did not receive a majority of backers in the 120-seat Knesset, however, and neither he nor the bloc of parties opposing his continued rule have a clear path to a governing coalition, leading to fears of a fifth rapid-fire election.

Multiple — and mostly improbable — scenarios have been floated on how to reach the magic number of 61, including relying on outside support from Ra’am, despite the opposition of right-wing lawmakers; trying to recruit “defectors” from other parties; and trying to get Sa’ar’s New Hope to join such a coalition.

If Netanyahu does not succeed in forming a government within 28 days, the president can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government.

Rivlin has intimated that he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election, which would be the fifth in under three years.

Though coalition negotiations are still underway, the allegiances of parties were already tested on Monday evening by Likud MK Miki Zohar, who had intended to bring for a Knesset vote his suggestion for the members of the Arrangements Committee, but pulled the vote at the last minute due to Yamina’s opposition.

The committee, the first in the Knesset to be formed after an election, determines which parliamentary committees will be formed and who will sit on them. Crucially, it also controls the legislative agenda in the new parliament until a new government is formed.

Likud MK Miki Zohar seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu on Sunday appointed Zohar to chair the Arrangements Committee, a move made possible after Rivlin chose the premier to form a coalition following last month’s election. The lawmaker tasked with forming a coalition gets to select the committee chair.

Zohar had failed to reach an agreement with party leaders on who should sit on the committee and so drew up a list giving his own Likud party a majority, Haaretz reported.

Disagreements had revolved around how many seats should be allocated to each of the ten parties that won between 6-9 seats in the election. According to the report, if those parties are given a single seat then parties backing Netanyahu as prime minister will have a slim majority, whereas if they are each given two seats the bloc of parties seeking to replace him will gain more power.

After Yamina announced it would oppose the formation of the committee under Zohar’s terms, he pulled the vote, which is now expected to take place next week.

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