Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush and MK Yisrael Eichler of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Sunday asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step aside and let another lawmaker from the right lead a new government.
The request from the two senior allies of Netanyahu and his Likud party came as Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid and Yamina chief Naftali Bennett plowed ahead with their own efforts to build a majority coalition in the wake of March’s inconclusive elections, reportedly making significant progress.
In a letter to Netanyahu, the two UTJ members said that four inconclusive elections had failed to produce a right-wing government as they had hoped and that if the current political deadlock leads to a fifth vote, it will spell defeat for the right-wing and religious parties in the Knesset.
They urged Netanyahu to step down for the first year and a half of a coalition and then return later to his position.
“During the past two years, and over the course of four rounds of elections, the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties supported the bloc led by Likud, with the intention of establishing a strong right-wing government on the basis of values and tradition, regrettably without success,” the lawmakers wrote.
Noting that they understand Netanyahu’s keenness to persevere his bloc in order to prevent the opposing right-center-left bloc from forming a government, they wrote, “We have no desire to get to fifth elections that are likely to end with a defeat for the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.”
“The only way to prevent a left-wing government and also to prevent elections is a clear declaration from you, before a left-wing government is established, that you will grant someone from the right-wing bloc, who will manage to unite 65 right-wing MKs, the premiership for the first year and a half in a rotation,” they wrote, referring to the number of lawmakers in the Knesset from right-wing parties, minus the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party.
Porush and Eichler said that during that time, Netanyahu would be able to continue as alternate prime minister and concentrate his efforts on diplomacy with the Biden administration in the US, regional peace efforts, and developments regarding talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal with world powers.
In April, Hebrew media reports said that ultra-Orthodox lawmakers had warned Netanyahu that they would not follow him to a fifth round of elections. It was not clear if the warning came from UJT or Shas party members.
The March election left the Knesset divided between the Netanyahu-led right-wing and religious bloc and the change bloc, which includes two right-wing parties, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu, that have vowed to see Netanyahu ousted.
Neither bloc has a majority in the Knesset, but overall the house is right-leaning. Without Netanyahu as prime minister, New Hope would join Netanyahu’s bloc. Though Yamina is also right-wing, it had said it would go with his rivals if he failed to muster a Knesset majority, in order to avert another round of voting.
The letter came as Lapid and Bennett continued almost round-the-clock efforts to negotiate a coalition agreement between themselves and the disparate members of the so-called change bloc of parties.
Bennett met Sunday with Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas for talks on securing the Islamist Arab party’s support in the formation of a government together with Lapid.
Yamina described the meeting as “good” and said the two discussed “various possibilities.”
“It was agreed that the negotiating teams will stay in touch and meet in the future,” Yamina said in a statement.
Ahead of the meeting, Hebrew media reports said Abbas was expected to demand in return for his support the chairmanship of a Knesset committee for Arab affairs along with one additional significant Knesset committee, that a future government recognize three currently unrecognized Bedouin communities in the Negev region, and that a new city for the Arab population be established in the south.
The prospective unity government being negotiated between Yamina, Yesh Atid and the parties opposing Netanyahu will likely need Ra’am to vote in favor of their coalition or abstain for it to be sworn in with more supporting votes than those opposing it.
Lapid, who last week received the presidential mandate to try to form a government, is leading the negotiations on behalf of the so-called “change bloc.” 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.
Those coalition-building efforts hang by a thread, however, as one Yamina lawmaker, MK Amichai Chikli, announced last week that he will oppose such a government as it means installing Lapid as prime minister and partnering with the left-wing Meretz party. Opposition from any other MKs could potentially scuttle a deal: without Chikli, the prospective change bloc, including Yamina, has 57 seats in parliament, compared to 53 (including Chikli) for the parties backing Netanyahu.
The predominantly Arab Joint List party does not plan to vote in favor of the emerging coalition because it will reportedly see Bennett installed as prime minister and because Bennett opposes including the party in the government, Haaretz reported.
Yamina does not expect any other lawmakers to break ranks and oppose the establishment of a Bennett-Lapid government, but should that happen the bloc is looking at getting support instead from some of the parties that make up the Joint List alliance, according to the report.
As Lapid and Bennett worked to build their coalition, they also stood together against attacks from Netanyahu, who has been preemptively tarring their government as “leftist.” On Sunday, Netanyahu shared Hebrew media reports, based on remarks from Likud party whip MK Miki Zohar, who claimed that the pair plan to appointed former state prosecutor Shai Nitzan to be attorney general after incumbent Avichai Mandelblit steps down. Bennett and Lapid adamantly denied that there was any truth to the claim.
“There are no words, Netanyahu, because there is no truth [to it],” Bennett tweeted, suggesting that it was the prime minister himself who was behind the rumor.
“There is no agreement on the matter of Shai Nitzan; his name didn’t not come up at all in the negotiations,” Lapid tweeted and wrote that Netanyahu “as usual is blatantly lying. Disgraceful.”
Nitzan was state prosecutor when corruption charges were put together against Netanyahu, who is now on trial.
Yamina also rejected reports that the coalition agreement would include a freeze on settlement building in the West Bank, an endeavor that the nationalist Zionist party strongly supports.
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.
Aside from the political pressure from Likud, Yamina lawmakers are also being targeted by right-wing activists.
Bennett on Sunday filed a complaint with the Knesset Guard after announcements of his death were shared on social media. One Likud supporter wrote that Bennett should “drop dead” and called him a “traitor.”
Also, Yamina No. 2 MK Ayelet Shaked was forced to get a new cellphone after being bombarded with nasty messages sent by Likud and other right-wing activists, Channel 12 news reported.
Among the messages were hundreds calling on Shaked not to join the prospective “change government” of anti-Netanyahu parties, the report said.
“Burn in hell,” one such message read, according to a screenshot published by the network.
Right-wing activists protested Saturday night outside the homes of Shaked and other Yamina lawmakers.
Last week, the Knesset Guard boosted security around Bennett, reportedly after he received deaths threats.
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.