Ra'am head said seeking to be committee chair, not minister

‘Change bloc’ seeking to swear in new government as early as Tuesday

With pressure from Netanyahu on Yamina MKs, Lapid and Bennett are working to finalize coalition agreements between 7 parties in the next two days

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yamina chair Naftali Bennett are trying to expedite coalition negotiations in order to swear in a new government as early as Tuesday this week, sources in the “change bloc” told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

According to the sources, the haste comes over concerns with respect to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to convince Yamina members to oppose the government, following the announcement last week of MK Amichai Chikli that he will vote against it.

Netanyahu and his Likud party are pressing Yamina as a whole, as well as individual MKs, to not join with Lapid in forming a government, with efforts focused on getting other lawmakers from Bennett’s right-wing party to adopt Chikli’s position.

In order to bypass Netanyahu’s efforts, Lapid and Bennett are working to finalize coalition agreements between the parties in the next two days, the sources said.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid during a ceremony at Netiv Ha’avot, at the West Bank’s Elazar settlement, on July 23, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Lapid and Bennett’s respective negotiating teams held marathon talks Saturday night until the early hours of Sunday morning during which “significant progress” was made, the Kan public broadcaster reported. The network also said that the two hope to close negotiation agreements by Monday.

According to the report, the general mechanisms and basic principles by which such a government would operate have been largely agreed upon, and the main issue of contention is now the distribution of ministries and Knesset posts in the coalition.

Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on May 06, 2021. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90

Lapid, who last week received the presidential mandate to try to form a government, is leading the negotiations on behalf of the center-left. The sides are believed to have agreed that Bennett will serve as prime minister for the government’s first two years, with Lapid serving for the latter two.

The “change bloc” coalition-building efforts hang by a thread, however, as opposition from further MKs could potentially scupper them: without Chikli the prospective change bloc, including Yamina, has 57 seats in parliament compared to 53 (including Chikli) for the parties backing Netanyahu.

While the government does not need an absolute majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to be voted in, it does need more MKs to vote in favor of it than those that oppose it. The Islamist Ra’am party, with four seats, could therefore take the change bloc to 61, or prevent a government from being formed by giving pro-Netanyahu bloc 57 and causing a tie.

Lapid and Bennett were set to meet with party chair Mansour Abbas Sunday in an effort to convince Ra’am to back the new government.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, leads a faction meeting, in the Israeli parliament on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Abbas has so far resisted backing either side, positioning himself as a would-be kingmaker by saying he will support a government best placed to deal with the issues facing the Arab Israeli community he represents.

He will not, however, demand a ministerial position in the new government and will instead suffice with the chairmanship of a Knesset committee — either internal affairs or economic affairs — sources in the change bloc said Sunday.

Beyond gaining Abbas’s support and preventing defections from Yamina, the change bloc is also working to resolve several disagreements between the seven parties that would make up the prospective government — Yesh Atid, Yamina, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, New Hope, Labor and Meretz.

According to reports, Lapid would be foreign minister in Bennett’s cabinet, with Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman as finance minister, but a number of disagreements remain between the seven parties over several key ministries.

Channel 12 news reported that Yamina has given its potential partners an ultimatum that Bennett’s close ally Ayelet Shaked must be appointed justice minister or there will be no deal. Shaked served in the post in 2015-2019.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked at the Knesset on April 26, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The justice portfolio is currently also being demanded by New Hope party chief Gideon Sa’ar. Sa’ar had preferred the defense portfolio, but Blue and White’s Benny Gantz is insisting on retaining that.

Channel 12 said Yamina is demanding most of the top so-called “ideological” portfolios in the government, including justice, religious affairs, public security and education, leaving few top posts for other parties.

The Education Ministry specifically is a sticking point, with the left-wing Meretz party’s Nitzan Horowitz demanding the post, while New Hope wants it for its own Yifat Shasha-Biton.

The parties were also reported by Haaretz to be considering a rotation of the Knesset speakership between Yesh Atid’s Meir Cohen and New Hope’s Ze’ev Elkin.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prior to Lapid getting the mandate, Netanyahu himself was given first shot for 28 days, but failed to convince enough Knesset members to back his coalition. Bennett himself had committed to back Netanyahu if he could cobble together a government, but Netanyahu was unable to convince the hard-right Religious Zionism to join, as in order to reach a majority Knesset he needed to rely on the support of Ra’am from outside the coalition.

If Lapid fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends June 2, any Knesset member could try to get the endorsement of a majority of lawmakers for prime minister. If that 21-day period fails to yield a coalition, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a fifth election in two and a half years.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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