Shaked backs Bennett: He negotiated with PM in good faith

Bennett battles to keep his own party on board as he pushes for unity government

Yamina leader reportedly trying to finish negotiations with Lapid quickly to avoid defections, after one of his MKs said he would vote against ‘change bloc’ coalition

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett is pushing to finish talks on forming a unity government within days amid fears that additional lawmakers from his right-wing party could come out against assembling a coalition with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday evening. Earlier Wednesday, Yamina MK Amichai Chikli said he would vote against a government with Lapid and the anti-Netanyahu camp.

President Reuven Rivlin announced Wednesday afternoon that he had tasked Lapid with forming Israel’s next government, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier acknowledged he had failed to build a coalition in the 28 days he was given to do so.

Lapid and Bennett have been negotiating coalition terms in recent weeks, reportedly closing in on agreements in many areas, with the Yesh Atid leader saying he is ready to let Bennett serve first as prime minister in a rotation agreement.

But in addition to resolving their own differences, Lapid and Bennett must also muster a majority coalition from an unlikely mixture of right-wing, left-wing and centrist parties as well as the Islamist Ra’am party, which complicates matters and raises the question of how stable such a government would be to begin with. And they must placate their own party members, who will likely struggle to reconcile their views with their emerging coalition partners.

Netanyahu has repeatedly slammed Bennett, including on Wednesday night, for considering joining a government with several left-wing parties — despite the prime minister’s current unity government which includes the centrist Blue and White and center-left Labor and the fact that he was willing to form a coalition with the support of Ra’am.

Ayelet Shaked (R) and Idit Silman take part in a tree-planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, February 10, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Despite reports that she is still working to form a right-wing government, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked is supportive of Bennett’s efforts to form a government with Lapid, Yamina sources told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

Shaked herself later Wednesday indicated her backing for Bennett, saying he negotiated with Netanyahu in good faith and “made every effort to enable a right-wing government.” Bennett “said from the start that he would try to establish a right-wing government, and that’s what he did,” she said. “He also said he would make every effort to prevent another election — and that’s what he’s doing.”

Additionally, Yamina MK Idit Silman has no intention of disrupting Bennett’s effort to form a government, the Yamina sources said. Silman was mentioned as a lawmaker who could join fellow Yamina MK Chikli in voting against a unity government.

On Thursday morning, Silman was quoted by Channel 12 news as telling her associates: “There is no chance I’ll defect from Bennett. I back him completely.”

In a letter addressed to Bennett, Chikli said Wednesday morning that he agrees that a change in the country’s leadership is necessary and a fifth round of elections since April 2019 would be “very bad,” but said he wouldn’t support averting elections “at all costs.”

He said he objected to “the serial violation of express promises to our voters,” which included forming a right-wing government, not sitting in a coalition with the left-wing Meretz party, and not crowning Lapid as prime minister even in a rotation deal.

He also rejected the prospect of joining forces with parties that campaigned mostly on promises to oust Netanyahu. “What do we have to do with the spirit of hate, with the Black Flags?” he asked, referring to a group organizing protests against the longtime premier.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

Chikli argued that such a government would be “in direct opposition to the basic identity of the Yamina party,” and asked Bennett to reconsider the move and find “better, more ethical and more right-wing alternatives.”

Just two days ago, Chikli denied there was a split in Yamina and said: “I stand behind Bennett and trust him.”

Yamina said in response that it “respects” Chikli’s position, but vowed to “form a stable and functioning government to prevent a descent into the chaos of fifth elections.”

Chikli’s objection to sitting in a government with left-wing parties comes despite his apparent willingness to join a right-wing coalition backed by Ra’am.

Ra’am had negotiated with Netanyahu, but the talks were stymied due to the objection of Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party and vetoed a coalition based on outside support by the “terror-supporting” Islamist party. Ra’am is the political wing of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement and its charter calls Zionism racist.

Without Chikli, Lapid and Bennett’s proposed coalition of Yesh Atid, Yamina, Blue and White, New Hope, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor and Meretz would go from 58 seats to 57. Netanyahu’s bloc of parties supporting him has 52. The new government does not, in theory, need an absolute majority in the 120-seat Knesset but merely more votes in favor than against. This would still likely require the outside support of Arab parties.

Speaking Wednesday evening moments before Rivlin’s announcement, Bennett lamented Israel’s years-long political deadlock and the lack of permanent government to address numerous issues, saying the continued elections cause “direct harm to human lives.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Knesset, on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, Bennett reiterated that he preferred a right-wing coalition, but said the premier was unable to muster a majority. According to the Yamina chief, during the past day he tried to keep open the options for a right-wing coalition, apparently referring to his reported efforts to get Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc to recommend that Bennett form the next government.

“But Netanyahu slammed the door on us,” he said.

Bennett added that now was the time to stop and reconsider a new path, in an appeal to all right-wing and religious parties aligned with Netanyahu.

“Whoever cynically takes the State of Israel to fifth elections based on personal interests, in complete opposition to the needs of the nation and state, the people won’t forgive them. This is the time for a unity government,” he said.

“Can’t MK Omar Barlev from the Labor party and MK Matan Kahana [of Yamina] really sit in the same coalition?” Bennett said of the two former senior IDF officers. “Can’t people who are able to fight together in Lebanon or Gaza be able to sit together in the same government? Is that really so impossible?”

In a televised statement from his official residence, Rivlin said his “main consideration” in picking Lapid was that he had the best chance of forming a government that can win the Knesset’s backing. Lapid has 28 days to attempt to cobble together a government. If he fails, the Knesset would have 21 days to decide on a prime minister who could garner the support of an absolute majority of the 120 MKs. If that doesn’t happen, Israel would go to its fifth election since April 2019.

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