Netanyahu running out of time to muster a majority coalition

In last-ditch gambit, Likud seeks fast-tracked vote on direct election for PM

Longshot move comes hours before premier’s deadline to form a government; parties scramble over who will be tasked next to form coalition, Ra’am says it won’t recommend anyone

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With hours remaining before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires, Likud faction chairman MK Miki Zohar sought approval from a key Knesset committee to fast-track a bill proposing a direct vote for prime minister as a way of resolving the political deadlock in the wake of last month’s inconclusive elections.

However, parties backing Netanyahu as prime minister do not appear to have a majority on the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee — or in the Knesset itself — making quick passage of the bill unlikely. Yamina indicated it would back fast-tracking the bill, but did not say it would support the bill itself.

The direct election proposal, which has been pushed on behalf of Netanyahu since last month, comes amid a flurry of political maneuvering and prodding ahead of Netanyahu’s midnight deadline to build a majority coalition, and with the expectation that if he fails the mandate will go to opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid. The bid to advance the direct-election vote did not appear to signal that Netanyahu was any closer to shifting the Knesset arithmetic so as to clear a path for him to muster a coalition majority.

If Netanyahu fails to announce a majority coalition by midnight, President Reuven Rivlin would have up to three days to decide what to do next.  Netanyahu could seek a 14-day extension, which the president is not required to grant. Or Rivlin could give the mandate to another MK — including Lapid or possibly Yamina’s Naftali Bennett. Or he could throw the mandate to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to find a candidate backed by 61 or more of the 120 MKs; if it failed, Israel would automatically head to its fifth election since April 2019.

Regarding the direct election bill, Zohar said on Twitter that he wanted the Arrangements Committee, which he chairs, to approve lifting a procedural requirement that bills wait 45 days from being tabled in the Knesset until they are brought for a vote. He said he also intended to seek the same approval for a list of other bills backed by the pro-Netanyahu bloc, including one enabling the death penalty for convicted terrorists and another legalizing unrecognized West Bank outposts.

Zohar called a committee meeting for 5:30 p.m. and it held a series of votes — including beginning the process to advance legislation curbing the power of the Supreme Court. That vote was approved 17-15, meaning the bill will eventually be discussed in the Knesset. Zohar adjourned the meeting until 19:50 without calling a vote on the direct election legislation.

“With the help of God, at 5:30 p.m. all Israeli citizens will know where the left wants to lead Bennett and [Gideon] Sa’ar,” Zohar tweeted earlier Tuesday, referring respectively to the heads of the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties.

He added: “The vote in the Arrangements [Committee] on all these laws will clarify the meaning of a left-wing government with a tiny right-wing fig leaf on top.”

Should Lapid be tasked with forming a government next, he will be able to choose a new Arrangements Committee chair from his own party, likely dooming any chance that the bill for a direct vote will be heard in the Knesset.

If the committee grants permission, the bill could be brought for all three readings on Wednesday. If passed into law, it would send the country down an alternative route to resolving the political crisis.

Yamina chair Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under the terms of the bill, any MK who has the backing of 20 other lawmakers would be able to run in the election, to be held in a month’s time. Polls have consistently shown Netanyahu as the most popular lawmaker to be prime minister, albeit without marshaling a majority in elections.

The balance of power in the Arrangements Committee was decided in a key Knesset vote last month when a proposal for the panel’s members pitched by Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies was defeated, and that of the opposition leader passed instead. The Arrangements Committee, a temporary body formed after elections, is central to Knesset procedures and wields great power until a government is established.

The proposal to hold a direct vote for the premiership was first floated last month by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key pillar in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc, though Likud officials were pitching it to potential allies before Shas publicly encouraged it.

Netanyahu leads a bloc of right-wing and religious parties facing Lapid’s so-called “change bloc” of right-wing, center and left-wing parties seeking to oust the current prime minister. Neither bloc has a majority in the Knesset and two parties have been left in kingmaker positions, Yamina led by Naftali Bennett and the Arab Islamist party Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas.

Both blocs would likely require the cooperation of both those parties in order to have a majority, with Bennett seeking to become prime minister himself and Abbas offering outside support for whichever government is best for the community he represents.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on April 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett and Abbas have negotiated with both blocs but have not yet committed to either. Bennett has urged the establishment of a right-wing government and has said that he will back a Netanyahu-led government on condition that it has a majority in the Knesset; otherwise he may join with Lapid’s bloc.

On Tuesday, Bennett’s Yamina party said it would support fast-tracking the vote on direct elections for premier and the other Netanyahu-pushed laws, except the one that cancels the egalitarian distribution of power in the current government.

Yamina said it hadn’t yet decided whether to support the passage of the bills into law, and that all it would do for now is agree to have them go up for a vote without delay.

The right-wing, anti-Netanyahu New Hope said it would vote against the direct election bid but support the vote legalizing unrecognized West Bank outposts.

Tuesday saw parties and lawmakers lobbying each other over what would happen if, as seems certain, the deadline passes without a Netanyahu-led government being formed. Rivlin will hold consultations to determine which lawmaker has the most support — and therefore the best chance — to form a government. The two most likely candidates are Lapid and Bennett.

With Netanyahu apparently set to fail to meet the deadline, Likud was instead working to convince Abbas to back Bennett to be tasked with forming a government, the Walla news website reported, and the Yamina party leader is also involved in the push. According to the report, if Abbas agrees, then the entire Netanyahu bloc will recommend to Rivlin that Bennett get the mandate rather than Lapid.

However, Walla later reported that Abbas had told Likud he won’t announce whom his party backs to form a government.

“At the end of the round [of consultations] we’ll go with whoever has the most recommendations,” Abbas was quoted as saying.

Likud is aiming to get at least 61 lawmakers — a majority of the 120-seat Knesset — to back Bennett, forcing Rivlin’s hand on the matter, the report said.

“Abbas has not ruled out the possibility,” a source told Walla. Though Abbas has indicated in the past that he could support a right-wing government, it was his Ra’am party that tilted the balance against Likud in the crucial vote on the Arrangements Committee makeup.

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

Other Hebrew media reports said that ultra-Orthodox parties, which are part of Netanyahu’s bloc, offered the Blue and White party chief, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the support of the entire bloc to be given the mandate to form a government rather than Lapid.

Blue and White swiftly denied the reports, saying in a statement that it “supports and is acting to replace the Netanyahu government via the change bloc. The defense minister ordered his close circle to make every effort and to act in every way in order to help Lapid receive the mandate from the president.”

Further hammering home his commitment, Gantz later spoke with the leader of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, MK Ayman Odeh, and a senior lawmaker in the party, MK Ahmad Tibi, urging both of them to back Lapid.

“Give your support to Lapid,” Gantz told the lawmakers, according to a report by the Maariv website. “We need to remove all barriers and support his candidacy, otherwise the future of minorities and social equality will not be part of the country. Stand behind Lapid, otherwise the lights will be turned off here for many years.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks at a weekly faction meeting in the Knesset on May 5, 2021 (Courtesy)

Gantz, who is part of the existing unity government with Netanyahu, also held talks with the Labor and Meretz party leaders, reports said.

It was the failure of the power-sharing government to pass a state budget, amid a standoff between Netanyahu and Gantz, that prompted the most recent elections. Netanyahu was widely seen as intentionally failing to pass a budget to avoid Gantz becoming premier in November, which will happen automatically if a new government isn’t announced by then.

In the past few days, Netanyahu has publicly offered Bennett to be prime minister first in a rotation agreement, and Lapid has reportedly done the same in negotiations. Bennett has so far rebuffed Netanyahu’s offer on the grounds that even with Yamina on board, the prime minister still does not have a majority. Hampering Netanyahu’s efforts is the unwavering stance of the far-right Religious Zionism party in his bloc to not be part of a coalition that rests on any Arab party, even via outside support.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich reportedly refused to commit to backing Bennett if Abbas also supports the idea, with sources telling Walla that the party will only consider the matter “when it becomes relevant.”

Reports have claimed that a power-sharing agreement has been reached between Lapid and Bennett, but there are differences remaining in the distribution of ministries among the various parties in the “change bloc.”

Parties in the bloc have significantly different views on key policy issues, hampering negotiations for a government without Netanyahu.

Should lawmakers fail to produce a government, the country will go to what would be its fifth election in two and a half years.

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