Lapid, Bennett know they must form a government quickly – or not at all

The prospective new heads of an unprecedentedly diverse and divided ‘unity coalition’ have an uphill battle ahead of them, and Netanyahu is busy laying traps

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

File: Then-finance minister Yair Lapid (left) and then-economy minister Naftali Bennett at the Manufacturers Association of Israel annual general assembly at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, February 26, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90.)
File: Then-finance minister Yair Lapid (left) and then-economy minister Naftali Bennett at the Manufacturers Association of Israel annual general assembly at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, February 26, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90.)

On Wednesday, Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, received the mandate from the president granting him 28 days to try to form a government.

By Thursday, Lapid had met with Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, the potential next prime minister in a rotation pact between them. On Friday afternoon, the two men met with the leaders of New Hope, Labor, Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu.

And on Sunday Lapid and Bennett were meeting with the most sensitive potential coalition partner: Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party.

Things are moving with breakneck speed, a fact that has made some Yamina and Yesh Atid officials upbeat about the new government’s prospects.

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)

Yet, ironically, that speed is a function not of ease, but of desperation.

“What we don’t get done fast, won’t get done at all,” goes the refrain since Wednesday from those in the know.

A problem of numbers

A Lapid-Bennett government would straddle fault lines no government has ever before had to manage in quite the same way.

The proposed coalition has the same problem that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has encountered four times now in his fight across four elections to piece together a rightist coalition. Namely, without a dramatic leap of one party or another across the divide or, alternatively, the unprecedented support of Arab non-Zionist (or in some cases actively anti-Zionist) parties, the numbers just aren’t there.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli seen at the Knesset on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yamina, Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, New Hope and Meretz have 58 seats between them, three short of the narrowest of Knesset majorities. That’s before Yamina’s Amichai Chikli declared last week he wouldn’t support such a coalition.

Remove Chikli and add the four-seat Ra’am to the mix and you reach precisely 61, with not a vote to spare.

It’s a terribly difficult puzzle to piece together. Each new part Lapid or Bennett might try to add seems to compromise another.

Some in New Hope and Yamina are working hard to bring Haredi parties on board in a bid to stabilize the government and, no less important for Bennett and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, strengthen its conservative wing.

But Haredi support (Shas’s nine seats and/or United Torah Judaism’s seven) would almost certainly mean the loss of Yisrael Beytenu’s seven and likely also progressive Meretz’s six.

Haredi party leaders Aryeh Deri of Shas, center, and Yaakov Litzman, left, and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, at a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Arab Joint List quietly suggested to Lapid last week to drop right-wing Bennett (six seats without Chikli) and toss out the rotation idea in exchange for the support of their six seats. But without Bennett, Lapid loses Sa’ar’s six seats as well.

And therein lies the rub. It’s not at all clear that what Bennett and Lapid are trying to do is actually possible. Nothing quite like it has ever been done in Israeli politics.

In a Facebook post on Friday responding to a growing campaign of angry criticism from the right, Bennett acknowledged the delicacy of what he is trying to do.

“It’s an experiment,” he wrote, adding, “I don’t know if it’s possible…. The atmosphere is positive, but the gaps aren’t easy to bridge.”

New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, center, alongside party candidates Yifat Shasha Biton, left, and Sharren Haskel, in red, at an election tour at Hatikva market in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu will have his say

Of course, Netanyahu is not neutralized by Lapid receiving the mandate. Protesters have rallied outside the homes of Yamina MKs. Netanyahu, Religious Zionist leader Betzalel Smotrich and MKs from across the right are mounting an intense campaign in every media outlet and social network they can access with one simple message: Bennett is betraying the right and betraying his voters.

It’s a campaign intended to frighten Yamina and its MKs into pulling back from the unity government.

For the moment, it seems to have had the opposite effect: reminding Bennett and his colleagues what awaits them on the campaign trail should the new government fail to materialize.

Or as Bennett put it delicately on Friday, “I’m willing to go far and pay a personal political price with my ‘base’ — as long as it ends with a government.”

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s why he’s asking for relatively little from that government — at least where policy is concerned; in terms of positions, he’s asking for no less than the premiership. “[That government’s] organizing principle will be simple,” Bennett wrote on Friday, “goodwill and the understanding that not all issues that have divided left and right for over 70 years have to be resolved right now.”

Yet the right-wing drumbeat about Bennett’s “treason” continues, and for sound tactical reasons.

If Lapid fails to form a coalition in the next 24 days, Netanyahu may have a second chance. For the 21 days that follow Lapid’s failure, the Knesset as a whole will have the mandate. Any MK who manages to obtain 61 votes can then form a coalition.

If no one manages to do so, the Knesset must by law dissolve to new elections.

Netanyahu is betting that there, at the precipice, desperate New Hope and Yamina lawmakers, watching their political careers dangling by a thread, may jump ship to him. Two or three would be enough.

Clockwise from top: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri oh Shas, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni meet on May 6, 2021. (Likud)

That’s why Bennett and Lapid believe they must work fast. Netanyahu is skilled at mobilizing the base against wayward right-wingers. There will come a point, sooner rather than later, where the personal political interests of several Yamina and New Hope MKs diverge from those of their party leaders — and all concerned are watching Netanyahu gear up to take full advantage of that moment.

Reports from sources close to Netanyahu say his political team is already hard at work on the problem, having “mapped out” so-called “paths of influence” to MKs deemed turnable at that last-minute stage of the game. Those “maps” are lists of rabbis, family members, business associates and so on, anyone who might be convinced to speak to the MKs, anyone who can turn the political pressure into closer-to-home social pressure on the MKs to save the country from a fifth election or a possible left-wing government.

Such a last-minute Netanyahu government would not mark a sudden victory or fundamental change of rules from the baseline deadlock that has afflicted Israeli politics for over two years now. It would be a narrow and exceedingly unmanageable coalition of at least six parties, possibly seven (depending in this scenario on how New Hope fragments, whether Ra’am is in, whether Religious Zionism supports the government in whole or only in part, etc.).

But it wouldn’t have to last long from Netanyahu’s perspective.

The very act of swearing it in carries one overwhelming advantage for him: it cancels the rotation agreement he signed as part of last spring’s coalition accord with Benny Gantz, under which the Blue and White leader would become prime minister in November. The new government wouldn’t need to govern, only to clear that rotation deal from the calendar, removing the sword of Damocles that hangs from Likud’s vantage point over the prospect of a fifth election.

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