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'A unity government isn’t a compromise, it’s a goal'

‘Israel is hurting’: Lapid says coalition he’ll form will heal internal strife

In first speech since being tasked with forming government, Yesh Atid chief declares, ‘We’ve had enough of anger and hate,’ says will work to ‘start something different’

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

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In his first speech since being tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a new government, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on Thursday presented the coalition he hopes to build as an opportunity to heal Israel’s internal strife, which he blamed on years of backhanded political dealings.

“I told the president, an Israeli unity government isn’t a compromise, it’s a goal,” Lapid said during his prime-time address, referring to his efforts to put together a government made up of parties spanning the political spectrum.

Rivlin announced Wednesday that he had tasked Lapid with forming Israel’s next government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier admitted he had failed to build a coalition in the 28 days he was given to do so.

While acknowledging the difficulties in forming a unity government, Lapid said: “It will have a simple goal: to take the country out of this crisis — the coronavirus crisis, the economic crisis, the political crisis and mostly the crisis within us, within the people of Israel.”

Yesh Atid party chair Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

He said “internal arguments” are making it more difficult to address security challenges and to improve the economy and education system.

“If we manage to form a government then it will also treat the opposition differently. We won’t attack or belittle. We’ll respect them and we will deal with the challenges faced by those who didn’t vote for us,” he added.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021/ (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett have been negotiating coalition terms in recent weeks, reportedly closing in on agreements in many areas, with the Yesh Atid leader saying he is ready to let Bennett serve first as prime minister in a rotation agreement.

Referring to Netanyahu’s Wednesday and Thursday speeches slamming his political rivals, Lapid said “that’s exactly what we want to change.”

“We’ve had enough of anger and of hate. We’ve argued enough. Israel is hurting and it needs quiet, it needs unity and it really needs a functioning government,” he said. “Israel is tired of fighting. Israeli society is looking to its politicians and asking when they will stop arguing and start working? Our answer is now.”

Speaking at a Likud faction meeting Thursday afternoon, the prime minister lashed out at Bennett for considering joining with Lapid.

“Naftali Bennett is trying to hide the truth. This will be a left-wing government, a weak government that bows its head in the face of international pressure,” Netanyahu said.

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 5, 2021. (Kippa)

Noting Bennett’s remark Wednesday that a unity government would prevent fifth elections, Lapid said that was only part of the reason it’s needed.

“The main aim, the main challenge, is to start something different – cleaner, decent and which actually works,” he insisted.

Referring to the disparate mix of parties that would be part of the unity government, Lapid acknowledged they are “different people with different views but the fact that someone doesn’t agree with us doesn’t make them an enemy.”

In addition to resolving their own differences, Lapid and Bennett must muster a majority coalition from an unlikely mixture of right-wing, left-wing and centrist parties as well as the Islamist Ra’am party, which complicates matters and raises the question of how stable such a government would be to begin with. And they must placate their own party members, who will likely struggle to reconcile their views with their emerging coalition partners.

Referring to Bennett’s pledge before the March 23 election that he would not allow the formation of a rotation government with Lapid — a promise that Yamina MK Amichai Chikli said on Wednesday he would not go back on and would therefore vote against such a government — the Yesh Atid head said he wasn’t looking to focus on the past.

“We’re not here to fight about the past but for the future. Whoever wants to fight and be angry can do that. We prefer to get to work for the Israeli public,” he said.

Asked following the speech if he was worried about any further lawmakers in Yamina deciding to oppose a prospective unity government, Lapid said that “it appears to me the situation is under control.”

A number of Yamina Knesset members said Thursday that Netanyahu has been attempting to persuade them to defect from the party and declare their opposition to entering a coalition with left-wing factions; they said they had rejected the efforts.

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on May 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After a meeting Thursday afternoon with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties supporting him, Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc called on Bennett and the party’s lawmakers “to keep their promises to the voter and not join a government with Yair Lapid, Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz,” the heads of the Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz parties, respectively.

Likud blames Bennett and his party for Netanyahu’s failure, claiming Yamina did not agree to join with Netanyahu and his bloc of right and religious parties.

However, while Bennett had committed to joining Netanyahu if the premier could muster a majority, the prime minister was unable to convince the hard-right Religious Zionism to back a government supported by the Islamist Ra’am party from outside the coalition.

If Lapid fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends June 2, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse any Knesset member as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. 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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