Hours before deadline, talks with Ra’am, Yamina on forming government said stuck

Lapid still struggling to close gaps with Ayelet Shaked and Islamist party before midnight; prospective vote to swear in new government won’t be held for 12 days

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett (left) and head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid seen in the plenum hall of the Knesset during the voting in the presidential election, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett (left) and head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid seen in the plenum hall of the Knesset during the voting in the presidential election, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Negotiations to form the so-called change coalition appeared stalled Tuesday afternoon, just hours away from Yair Lapid’s midnight deadline to announce whether a government has been formed, with a number of contentious issues holding up the finalization of the complicated deal.

With the clock ticking, agreements have yet to be reached with the right-wing New Hope and Yamina parties and with the Islamist R’aam party. The change bloc parties led by Yesh Atid’s Lapid were hoping to overcome their major ideological gaps by a Wednesday night deadline, ending Israel’s protracted political deadlock and ousting Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader, from the halls of power.

On Tuesday afternoon, Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked continued to demand she be given Labor chief Merav Michaeli’s spot on the Judicial Selection Committee and threatened to block the formation of the new government if she does not get it. Leaders of the change bloc were also becoming more concerned about Ra’am’s demands, which had hardened over the past day, Channel 12 reported.

The network said there was growing opposition within Ra’am to supporting the bloc’s efforts to form a government unless the parties agree to various demands for the Arab community that the right-wing flank of the potential coalition will find difficult to accept.

Unnamed officials in the Ra’am party — whose votes are vital to enable the change bloc to form a government — told Channel 12 that the leaders of the change bloc are refusing demands that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had also wooed the party, had agreed to. They warned that if talks continued in this direction, a government would not be formed.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas at the Knesset on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the disagreements revolve around Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas’s demand for the Interior Ministry to cede extensive authorities to local Arab Israeli municipal councils, a demand that Shaked, who is set to be interior minister, opposes. There also appears to be disagreement over two other Ra’am demands: scrapping an urban planning law that is seen as unfairly targeting the Arab Israeli community, and that the government’s key principles not include any language relating the LGBTQ community.

Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu had agreed Wednesday morning to annul the so-called Kaminitz law, penalizing illegal building, if Ra’am opposed the change government. Yamina and New Hope were reportedly against the move.

New Hope MK Ze’ev Elkin was quoted by Kan as telling Likud MKs that Ra’am’s demands concerning the Kaminitz Law “are impossible for me and for [Ayelet] Shaked. We will not agree to them under any circumstances.” Elkin, a top confidant of New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, is one of the leading negotiators in the effort to cobble together a so-called change government.

According to Channel 12, Lapid is hoping to close the gaps with Ra’am on Wednesday afternoon before pressing Shaked regarding the judicial panel. Ra’am was said to have hardened its negotiating position in the past day, encouraged by Netanyahu.

On Tuesday, Abbas had said the party would be part of the coalition and expressed optimism a deal would be finalized, but stressed that nothing was over until the final agreements were signed.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli meanwhile gave her formal approval to Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid to inform the president that he had succeeded in forming a government.

It was still not clear, however, whether the center-left would agree to Shaked’s demand. There were unconfirmed reports that Labor could decide to remain outside the coalition if Shaked takes Michaeli’s place on the Judicial Selection Committee, while backing it from outside. Labor denied this was being considered.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked holds a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Though Labor officials have said they would not back down on the committee position, having already completed their negotiations and agreed to join the government, a compromise was nonetheless expected, with political sources telling Hebrew media outlets that the formation of the government would not be prevented by the dispute.

Previous negotiations between Yesh Atid and Labor had concluded that Michaeli, who is set to be transportation minister, would be the ministerial representative on the committee. Shaked, a former justice minister who has been promised the position of interior minister in the Lapid government, attended some of the overnight talks, where she reportedly dug in her heels on receiving the spot.

The judicial appointment committee is chaired by the justice minister — set to be Sa’ar in the new government. Other members are another cabinet minister, two MKs selected by the Knesset, two members of the Israel Bar Association, the chief justice, and two other Supreme Court judges.

Head of the Yamins party and Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked seen in the plenum hall of the Israeli parliament during the voting in the presidential elections, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Representatives from coalition partners Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu have tried to resolve the issue by suggesting Shaked instead be appointed Israel’s ambassador to Washington — a proposal she refused outright, the Walla news website reported Tuesday.

By Wednesday evening, Yamina announced that it was offering a now well-worn solution to the conflict over who will serve in the judicial appointments committee, proposing a rotation deal between the Shaked and Michaeli, with Shaked serving first.

Labor had yet to officially respond, but party sources earlier dismissed the offer as “spin.”

Under the emerging PM rotation deal between Yamina and Yesh Atid, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett will serve as prime minister for two years before handing the reins to Lapid. If confirmed, it would be a precarious coalition with 61 of the 120 Knesset lawmakers backing it — and each of their votes potentially wielding power that could lead to its collapse.

While he has until midnight to inform the president that he has reached agreements on forming a government, Lapid has been hoping to make the announcement before the end of the day’s Knesset session, which would have forced Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin to set a vote of confidence for the emerging coalition by next Wednesday.

Yamina head Naftali Bennett (L) and Labor chair Merav Michaeli in the Knesset plenum for the election of Israel’s 11th president, June 2, 2021. (Dani Shem Tov/ Knesset)

But with Wednesday’s Knesset session over, even if the change bloc reaches a deal by the end of the day, a new government likely wouldn’t be sworn in before June 14.

This leaves the door open for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud to continue to attempt to foil the effort.

Should Lapid fail to form a government before his mandate expires on midnight Wednesday, the task 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.

Lapid, while tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government, has agreed to a rotating premiership with Bennett, who would serve first as prime minister. If confirmed, the new coalition would remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office after 12 years of consecutive rule.

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