Sa'ar: Netanyahu 'putting his interests above the country's'

Buying time for Netanyahu, speaker declares Lapid coalition but doesn’t set vote

Deadline for swearing-in is June 14, giving PM’s allies a week to pressure right-wing MKs; Lapid says government will serve all Israelis; Gantz urges PM to ‘respect the process’

Then-Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum, June 7, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)
Then-Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum, June 7, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin formally notified the parliament on Monday that Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid has succeeded in forming a new power-sharing government within the time allotted to him by President Reuven Rivlin, but didn’t give a date for the swearing-in, which must by law take place no later than June 14.

The move was widely seen as an indication that Levin, a loyalist of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud party, is trying to delay the swearing-in as much as possible in order to give the premier’s allies time to foil the coalition by persuading prospective right-wing members to jump ship.

The law holds that the vote of confidence must come within seven days of the speaker’s announcement, but members of the “change government” have been pressuring Levin to call the vote for Wednesday. Levin had originally been said to be weighing scheduling the vote for Wednesday if there appeared to be a reasonable shot at preventing the formation of the potential government.

The new eight-party coalition that would oust Netanyahu’s current transitional government is set to hold a razor-thin majority of 61 lawmakers out of the Knesset’s 120, meaning the defection of a single lawmaker could thwart it.

Earlier Monday, various leaders in the emerging coalition addressed their respective parties’ faction meetings, with Lapid saying the coalition will strive to unite a fractured nation and also serve those who voted for parties going into the opposition.

“This government will be good and it will last because it is based on the right things – on trust, on decency, on goodwill,” Lapid said at a Yesh Atid faction meeting, commenting on widespread skepticism about the survivability of a coalition with a wafer-thin parliamentary majority and a motley assembly of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties.

New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar leads a Knesset faction meeting on May 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gideon Sa’ar of the right-wing New Hope party accused Netanyahu of “putting his personal interests above the benefit of the country” and said the intense pressure on right-wing MKs set to join the government, including demonstrations near their homes and threats against them and their families, “don’t reflect anything except a will to hold on to power at all costs.”

Sa’ar told his faction meeting: “I repeatedly said during the election campaign… that anyone who wants Netanyahu to stay on, please don’t vote for me… We are doing exactly what we promised the electorate: advancing change.”

Sa’ar echoed a warning voiced Sunday by Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman and cautioned that “the severely escalating violent and inciting discourse could result in casualties.” He called on Netanyahu to lower the flames.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed similar sentiment, saying during a faction meeting of his centrist Blue and White party that “if Netanyahu decides to leave scorched earth, he will harm his legacy and the country. I call on him from here to accept the democratic results and respect the process.”

Gantz also said: “I could have been prime minister for the next two and a half years in the blink of an eye [if he’d partnered again with Netanyahu]. I chose not to do this in order to enable the establishment of the change government, and I will continue to work on that.”

Head of the Blue and White party and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz speaks at a faction meeting in the Knesset, June 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid, who is set to become prime minister in September 2023, after Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett completes his stint at the helm, admitted he had failed to fulfill his election promise to form a government with no more than 18 ministers. In practice, the government is set to include at least 25 ministers.

“I failed on that, I have no way to defend that,” Lapid acknowledged. “I wanted a small government with a low number of ministers, this isn’t good… [but] this is part of what enabled us to form a government.”

Lapid appealed for unity amid growing pressure and incendiary remarks by supporters of Netanyahu, who like the prime minister have been lambasting the government as “left-wing” and “dangerous” and have staged protests denouncing Bennett and his Yamina party as “traitors” and “liars.”

“I want to speak to Netanyahu’s supporters: I know that the formation of the unity government is a crisis for some of you but you’ll discover that this government isn’t being created against you,” Lapid said. “It will work for you, it will respect you, it will be your government as well. It will also be a government of those who voted for Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism.

“They’ll discover that we’ll be fair toward them, that we will respect their beliefs and opinions, that we’ll listen to their needs.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid gives a statement at his party’s faction meeting in the Knesset, June 7, 2021 (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Lapid also appealed to Israelis supporting the emerging government not to gloat: “I know you waited a long time and this is your success, but there are a lot of people in Israel who are concerned about this government. We need to reach out to them and lower the tensions. We don’t need to celebrate in the town square and shout that we won. This is the time to unite Israeli society. They aren’t our enemies.”

He concluded by responding to comments by Netanyahu supporters arguing that votes were “stolen” in order to form the government.

“This government is being formed because it’s the majority. There were elections, we have a majority, we’re forming a government. That’s democracy, that’s its strength, that’s the choice Israel made,” he said.

Lapid’s remarks came after the leaders of the eight parties that make up the new prospective government met in Tel Aviv on Sunday for the first time since last week’s announcement that they had succeeded in forming a coalition.

(L-R) Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett, New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas, Labor head Merav Michaeli and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz at a meeting of the heads of the would-be-coalition in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2021. (Ra’anan Cohen)

Amid the alarmist discourse in some right-wing circles, the rising incitement on social media, the angry protests outside politicians’ homes, and even allegations of treason against Bennett and his allies, the Yamina party chief and prime minister-designate said to the cameras that the new government “is not a catastrophe, it’s not a disaster, [it’s] a change of government: a normal and obvious event in any democratic country.”

Taking a shot at Netanyahu, Bennett said, “Look, Israel’s regime is not monarchic. No one has a monopoly over power. Naturally, any regime that atrophies and degenerates after many years is replaced.”

While Bennett stressed that criticism of him and his allies was legitimate, he decried the “violent machine” he said had been activated against members of Yamina and Sa’ar’s New Hope to pressure them to oppose the new coalition through “a funded and directed operation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony to honor medical workers and hospitals for their fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, in Jerusalem, on June 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He appealed to Netanyahu to “let go. Let the country move forward. People are allowed to vote for a government even if you do not lead it — a government that, by the way, is 10 degrees to the right of the current one.

“Don’t leave scorched earth in your wake. We want to remember the good, the great deal of good you did during your service [as prime minister], and not, God forbid, a negative atmosphere you would leave upon your departure.”

Netanyahu, speaking to the right-wing Channel 20 after Bennett’s comments, called him “a habitual liar.” He said the emergent government was “more dangerous than the [2005 Gaza] Disengagement and Oslo [Accords].”

He accused Bennett of engaging in a “liquidation sale” of the country.

On Sunday, Yamina MKs Idit Silman and Nir Orbach of Yamina were granted extra security protection, after being targeted by activists aiming to pressure them against backing the emerging coalition deal.

At least four of the seven Yamina lawmakers in the Knesset have now been given additional protection amid threats directed at them over the party joining up with Lapid and left-wing parties to form the so-called change government.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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