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Blue and White close to finalizing agreement

Coalition talks stall, delaying declaration on whether government can be formed

Yesh Atid chief said hoping to announce a prospective government by 11 a.m. Wednesday; Yamina insists Shaked get spot on judicial appointments panel; Ra’am optimistic

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

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)

With a number of disagreements remaining between the various parties set to make up the so-called change coalition, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid proved unable to inform the president on Tuesday that he had managed to form a government. Negotiating teams were set instead to meet throughout the night to try to finalize the deal by Wednesday’s midnight deadline.

Ideally, Lapid is looking to announce by 11 a.m. Wednesday morning that he can form a government composed of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties, Channel 12 news reported Tuesday evening, with the aim of having Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) schedule a vote to swear in the new coalition on June 9.

However, the report said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is looking into whether Levin can push off a vote of confidence in the prospective government, though it also cited a ruling by former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor that the vote must be held within a week.

The delay came after a day of intensive negotiations between the leaders of the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White, right-wing Yamina, New Hope, Yisrael Beytenu parties, the left-wing Meretz, center-left Labor and the Islamist Ra’am.

The parties hope to overcome their major ideological gaps by a Wednesday night deadline, ending Israel’s protracted political deadlock and ousting Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader, from the halls of power.

Lapid has until midnight on Wednesday to form a government before his mandate to cobble together a coalition expires and goes to the Knesset for 21 days. If no lawmaker is able to secure a ruling majority by the end of that period, the Knesset will disperse and a fifth round of elections since April 2019 will be called.

The Yesh Atid chair, while tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government, has agreed to a rotating premiership with Yamina head Naftali Bennett serving first as prime minister.

If confirmed, the new coalition would remove Netanyahu from office after 12 years of consecutive rule.

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)

Nonetheless, parties seeking to form the new government failed to resolve a number of contentious issues between them by Tuesday night, including Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked’s demand she be given Labor chief Merav Michaeli’s spot on the Judicial Appointments Committee.

“Let them decide if they want a government or not,” a Yamina official insisting on the demand was quoted by Channel 12 as saying.

Michaeli pushed back earlier Tuesday against Shaked’s demand, saying that her Labor party was “standing by all of the agreements reached so far. We are not asking for more than was agreed, or less.”

Labor leader Merav Michaeli speaks during a Knesset faction meeting on May 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Michaeli warned Shaked against reopening the deal reached between Yesh Atid and Labor.

“If we open up the agreements, we are back to square one,” she said.

Yesh Atid has finalized agreements with Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, and Meretz.

At the same time, the Kan public broadcaster reported that New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar, the prospective justice minister, has clashed with some of his potential coalition partners over a plan to reform the position of the attorney general. The attorney general is both the top legal adviser to the government and the head of the state prosecution, and Sa’ar wants to split the roles.

According to the report, while several others issues linked to the distribution of portfolios to its lawmakers have been resolved, Sa’ar’s proposal is holding up New Hope from signing an agreement.

New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar arrives for negotiations to form a unity government at Kfar Maccabiah, June 01, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, however, has overcome its disagreements with other parties and is set to sign a coalition agreement with Yesh Atid by Tuesday night, according to political sources.

Disagreements also reportedly remain with the Arab Israeli Ra’am party, whose support will almost certainly be needed for the coalition to be sworn in, with the party’s secretary-general, Ibrahim Hijazi, called urgently to the Kfar Maccabiah hotel in Ramat Gan where party heads were meeting Tuesday evening.

Entering the hotel earlier Tuesday, Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas said the Islamist party would be part of the coalition and expressed optimism a deal would be finalized, but stressed nothing is over until the final agreements are signed.

“You can’t say it’s over until it’s over,” he told Kan, while expressing optimism that a government would be formed.

According to the broadcaster, the disagreements pertaining to Ra’am center on Abbas’s demand for the Interior Ministry to cede extensive authorities to local Arab Israeli municipal councils, a demand which Shaked, who is set to be interior minister, opposes.

This combination of photos shows Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, right, and Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked. (Yonatan Sindel, Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Channel 13 reported that agreement had however been reached on Ra’am’s demand to freeze an urban planning law which is seen as unfairly targeting the Arab Israeli community and not to include any language relating the LGBTQ community in the government’s key principles.

In other signs of the emerging deal, New Hope and Yamina agreed to give up on demands to share the position of Knesset speaker with Yesh Atid during the government’s term, according to Hebrew media reports.

Under the emerging rotation deal between Yamina and Yesh Atid, Bennett will serve as prime minister for two years before handing the reins to Lapid. Joining the coalition will be a mix of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties that refuse to join a government led by Netanyahu, who is on trial in three criminal cases. If confirmed, it will be a precarious coalition with 61 of the 120 Knesset lawmakers backing it — and each of their votes potentially wielding the power that could lead to its collapse.

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