Lapid, Bennett said to reach breakthrough on rotation deal for joint government

Yesh Atid leader reportedly offered Yamina head to be PM first in power-sharing deal; Religious Zionism’s Smotrich urges former ally Bennett not to enable ‘left-wing government’

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

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid during a ceremony at Netiv Ha'avot, at the West Bank's Elazar settlement, on July 23, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid during a ceremony at Netiv Ha'avot, at the West Bank's Elazar settlement, on July 23, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett have reportedly reached a “breakthrough” in their discussions on forming a joint government to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday evening.

According to multiple unsourced Hebrew media reports, Lapid agreed to allow Bennett to serve as prime minister first, in a potential power-sharing agreement between them, during talks late Saturday night.

The meeting, the first between the two party leaders since the March 23 national election, followed Bennett’s sit-down on Friday with Netanyahu.

According to Kan, Lapid told close associates following that meeting that “there are significant developments in the talks with Bennett and I assess that we will be be able to form a coalition with him.”

Lapid reportedly said that Bennett does not trust Netanyahu’s promises, and that “the ultra-Orthodox will join [our coalition] immediately after it’s formed.” The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties are loyal allies of Netanyahu and have clashed with Lapid over his position on the military draft.

The proposed power-sharing government between Lapid and Bennett would be a slim one, with 18 ministers maximum: nine for right-wing Bennett, centrist Blue and White’s Benny Gantz and right-wing New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar on one side, and nine for Lapid and others on the center-left, Channel 12 news reported.

According to Kan, Bennett had “all but” agreed to the proposal.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and his wife Gilat, right, arrive to cast their ballots during the elections at a polling station in Raanana on March 23, 2021. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Channel 12, however, said Bennett is still deciding whether he wants to be prime minister in such a government, or back Netanyahu and likely go to a fifth election, as the Likud leader does not appear to have any path to forming a coalition.

Bennett has refrained from backing either Netanyahu or the premier’s rivals after the inconclusive election, Israel’s fourth in two years, positioning him as a potential kingmaker after his right-wing Yamina party picked up seven seats.

Both blocs appear to need the support of Yamina and the Islamist Ra’am party to secure a majority. Ra’am, the smallest party in the incoming Knesset with four seats, said it had not decided on who to back for premier after a Saturday party meeting.

According to a separate report on Channel 12, citing allies of the Yamina chief, Bennett would prefer a full right-wing government led by Netanyahu, but that does not currently seem possible. His second choice would be a right-wing government led by Netanyahu with the outside support of the Islamist Arab Ra’am party, but that has been ruled out by Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich. His third choice would be a partnership with Lapid and the center-left, in which Bennett himself serves as prime minister. The report said that Bennett prefers a government with Lapid over a fifth election.

A Channel 13 report said that a decision by Bennett to agree to a deal with Lapid could lead most of the center-left parties to recommend Bennett as prime minister when they meet with President Reuven Rivlin on Monday to nominate a candidate to form a governing coalition.

The parties elected to the Knesset will meet with Rivlin on Monday to give their recommendations for prime minister. Rivlin is expected to announce on Wednesday which candidate will be given the mandate to attempt to form a government.

In addition to Yamina and Ra’am, Sa’ar’s New Hope has yet to announce which candidate it will endorse on Monday, but has ruled out both Netanyahu and Lapid.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) attends the Jewish Moroccan celebration of Mimouna at the Ma’ale Adumim home of Osnat Mark (R) on April 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The anti-Netanyahu bloc of Yesh Atid (17 seats), Blue and White (8), Labor (7), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Joint List (6), Meretz (6), and New Hope (6) won 57 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in total, and would need either all four of Ra’am’s lawmakers to back its coalition in order to have a majority in the Knesset, or the backing of the right-wing Yamina.

The pro-Netanyahu bloc of Likud (30), Shas (9), UTJ (7), and Religious Zionism (6) will need the support of Yamina. But that would only give it 59 seats in total, unless it depends on the Islamist Ra’am for support.

Smotrich pleads with Bennett; Sa’ar rules out backing Netanyahu

Speaking at a press conference Sunday evening, Religious Zionism’s Smotrich urged Bennett to recommend Netanyahu form the next government when he meets with Rivlin.

He warned that “any recommendation you make tomorrow that is not for Netanyahu will take us closer with huge steps toward a left-wing government.”

Calling Bennett “my very real friend,” Smotrich says he’s “fearful that the bear-hug by the left is blinding you.

“If you recommend yourself [for prime minister] you will yourself bring about the downfall of a right-wing government and the formation of a left-wing government,” the hard-right Religious Zionism leader said, of the possibility that Bennett would seek to form the coalition.

Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich in Modiin, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

At a separate live event, Sa’ar — a former Likud minister who left the party to form New Hope — again ruled out endorsing Netanyahu for premier.

“I said clearly during the election that whoever wants Netanyahu to stay should not vote for me… I said it very clearly, every day, all day… I repeat it again: We will not join or support a government led by Netanyahu,” said Sa’ar, whose party won six seats.

The New Hope leader said he wants to “form a government of change that will reconnect our people. We want a government that brings back values of truth-telling, of honesty and integrity… Not a government that is enslaved to the tapestry of interests of Netanyahu’s trial.”

Left to right: Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (Miriam Alster/Flash90); Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett; and New Hope party head Gideon Sa’ar (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 reported Saturday that Rivlin will likely ask party leaders whom they will refuse to sit with in a coalition. Sixty-seven lawmakers will not refuse to partner with Bennett, 66 for Lapid and 63 for Netanyahu, the network said, although it is unclear what Rivlin would decide to do with such information.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks during a ceremony for receiving the official results of the election, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 13 said Netanyahu told Bennett in their Friday meeting that if Yamina backs him as premier, he will receive 59 recommendations, which will be enough to secure Rivlin’s appointment, since he claimed that Sa’ar of the New Hope party will abstain, and possibly Ra’am, too.

Netanyahu is also reported to have offered Bennett a rotation deal to become prime minister after a year or 18 months, and for Yamina’s faction to be absorbed into Netanyahu’s Likud party, Channel 12 reported. Likud denied that Netanyahu had offered Bennett a rotation deal.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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