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Bennett to meet with Yamina MKs to coax them into government with Lapid

Reports differ on whether Yamina chief’s decision to join coalition with ‘change bloc’ is final; if it goes ahead, move would see Netanyahu removed from power

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett walking through the halls of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett walking through the halls of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett on Sunday was set to meet with his party lawmakers before his expected announcement that he’ll back the formation of a government that would remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

The Yamina faction meeting comes after reports on Saturday said Bennett is poised to declare his support for a coalition of the so-called “change bloc,” which would see him become prime minister in a power-sharing deal with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

Yamina released a statement Saturday night saying that it would hold a meeting Sunday during which Bennett would update the party’s lawmakers on “the developments in recent days.” He is expected to present them with the plan to ally with the bloc of Netanyahu rivals and persuade the right-wing lawmakers to get on board with the plan.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli announced earlier this month he would not support a Bennett-Lapid government. It remains unclear whether other members of the right-wing party will revolt and oppose the alliance of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked gives a statement to the press at the Knesset on May 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The “change bloc,” with six of Yamina’s seven seats, numbers 57 MKs. The Islamist Ra’am’s four MKs would hand it a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, allowing a government to be formed. But a rebellion by some Yamina lawmakers, or members of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, could unravel the plan.

Channel 13 news reported Saturday that should more rebels emerge in Yamina, the predominantly Arab Joint List may agree to provide the bloc with a “safety net” to ensure it a Knesset majority. There was no official confirmation of the report.

According to Channel 12 news, Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked, who in recent days had been seen as a key holdout on joining the so-called “change bloc,” has agreed with Bennett to join a power-sharing government led by Bennett and Lapid.

The government would bring together parties from the right (Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, New Hope), center (Yesh Atid, Blue and White) and left (Labor, Meretz), with support from the Islamist Arab Ra’am party (apparently from outside the coalition), in a unity government that would seek to extract Israel from two years of political chaos, spearhead the country’s recovery from coronavirus and heal societal rifts in a deeply divided nation.

Under the reported deal, Bennett would serve as prime minister for the government’s first two years, with Lapid replacing him for the final two.

Media reports differed on whether Bennett has already made a final decision, or is on the verge of doing so.

Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on May 6, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Channel 12 and Kan news said Bennett has resolved to join Lapid. It said he would publicly announce the decision on Sunday evening, with Lapid — who is currently mandated by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government — planning to visit the president on Monday to inform him he had succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Ynet news site reported that Bennett had told operatives a decision would be made in the next day or two.

According to Channel 12, Shaked had conditioned her support on Netanyahu failing to form a coalition himself. Kan news said Shaked was still hopeful of the possibility of New Hope and its leader Gideon Sa’ar — who has vowed not to partner with the premier — being persuaded to join Yamina and Netanyahu to form a right-wing government, but Bennett believed this was impossible.

Shaked is believed to fear a right-wing backlash from voters who prefer a government headed by the conservative Netanyahu than one backed and eventually headed by the centrist Lapid.

Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony for the victims of the 1948 Altalena incident, at Nachalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv on May 26, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Lapid’s mandate to form a government ends in four days. He has so far reached informal coalition agreements with Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and Labor, and is hoping to seal deals with Blue and White and New Hope in the next few days.

According to reports, Netanyahu planned to intensify his pressure campaign on Yamina members to refuse to support the emerging coalition.

Netanyahu has accused the nationalist Bennett of seeking to form a left-wing government due to political ambition and of betraying the right (though Bennett supported Netanyahu’s own efforts to form a government until those failed). The new government is expected to seek to avoid issues of controversy between left and right and focus on economic and social matters.

Dueling protests took place Saturday night outside the homes of Bennett, Shaked and Sa’ar between activists who oppose the change government and those who back it.

Israelis protest outside the home of Yamina party Naftali Bennet, with signs reading ‘You promised change — now deliver,’ on May 29, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that should he be ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu has no intention of resigning, and plans to lead the opposition, while engaging in attacks against Yamina and intense efforts to break up the coalition along ideological lines.

Following is the emerging makeup of the new government, should it be formed:

Prime Minister — Naftali Bennett (Yamina; rotating with Lapid after two years)

Foreign Minister — Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid)

Defense Minister — Benny Gantz (Blue and White)

Finance Minister — Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu)

Justice Minister — Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope)

Interior Minister — Ayelet Shaked (Yamina)

Transportation Minister — Merav Michaeli (Labor)

Education Minister — Yifat Shasha-Bitton (New Hope)

Public Security Minister — Omer Bar-Lev (Labor)

Health Minister — Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz)

Immigrant Absorption Minister — Pnina Tamano-Shata (Blue and White)

Culture Minister — Chili Tropper (Blue and White)

Communications Minister — Karine Elharrar (Yesh Atid)

Religious Affairs Minister — Matan Kahana (Yamina)

Agriculture Minister — Alon Schuster (Blue and White)

Environmental Protection Minister –– Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)

Regional Cooperation Minister — Issawi Frej

Knesset Speaker — Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid)

(Further ministries pending)

If Lapid cannot build a majority by June 2, the Knesset would have 21 days to agree on a prime minister; otherwise, Israel would head to its fifth elections in two and a half years.

Netanyahu on Friday released a video in which he said Bennett first agreed to join a rotational government with him, but later reneged to throw his lot in with what he described as a “left-wing government.”

Netanyahu has been in power since 2009, but has failed to decisively win four elections since 2019, and his political future has been complicated by being indicted in three criminal cases.

According to Channel 12, in an attempt to prevent Likud’s fall from power, Finance Minister Israel Katz recently proposed to Netanyahu to hold fresh primaries for the party leadership, with the winner replacing him as prime minister for a single year — after which he would presumably return.

Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Katz apparently thought this would allow parties that oppose Netanyahu, including Sa’ar’s New Hope, to join the government, and reportedly believed he would win the primaries and become prime minister.

Netanyahu rejected the offer, the network said.

After three inconclusive elections, Netanyahu finally convinced Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to join him in a power-sharing government in mid-2020. Netanyahu was to have served as prime minister for 18 months before handing over to Gantz in November 2021. However, late last year Likud and Blue and White’s government, dysfunctional since day one, fell apart over Netanyahu’s refusal to pass a two-year budget as had originally been agreed between the sides.

The government’s collapse and Israel’s subsequent fourth election in two years this past March was widely seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to avoid honoring his deal with Gantz and to cement his hold on power in the wake of the successful effort against coronavirus and normalization deals with several Arab countries.

Instead, the election ended with the Knesset mired in much the same gridlock that followed the previous three votes.

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