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Lapid downplays Bennett’s pledge not to join his government: ‘We will see’

Opposition leader says Yamina rival speaks differently ‘behind closed doors,’ insists an anti-Netanyahu government can be formed ‘if we have 61 seats… and a big Yesh Atid’

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

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on Monday dismissed Yamina chair Naftali Bennett’s pledge that he would not support a government headed by Lapid, saying that if the anti-Netanyahu bloc receives a majority of seats in the election “we will come out of it with a government.”

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Lapid said, “There is always a difference between the Bennett of television and Bennett of conversations behind closed doors.”

During an interview with the right-wing Channel 20 Sunday night, Bennett produced and signed a declaration that said: “I won’t allow Yair Lapid to be prime minister, even in a rotation [agreement].”

Lapid predicted Monday that Bennett would change his tune if Netanyahu and the parties that have pledged automatic support for the prime minister did not receive a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Naftali Bennett holds up a signed pledge not to serve in a government under Yair Lapid on March 21, 2021 (Screen grab/Channel 20)

“There will be elections, we will come out on the other side and we will see,” Lapid said.

“After the election, everyone will sit around the table. If we have 61 seats for the [anti-Netanyahu] bloc of change and we have a big Yesh Atid, there will be a week of shouting and battles but we will come out of it with a government,” he promised.

Bennett’s stunt came after the last polls published before the election showed Netanyahu’s Likud gaining momentum, while his right-wing rivals Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar appeared to be losing support. Polls showed the centrist Yesh Atid as the second-largest party after Likud.

The move appeared to be an effort to counter the message from Netanyahu’s campaign in recent days that warned right-wing voters that if they voted for Bennett or Sa’ar they would in effect be voting for Lapid as prime minister.

While other parties have ruled out serving alongside Netanyahu, Bennett has not done so, even as he has stated that he seeks to replace him as prime minister. He has repeatedly said in recent days that he will not sit in a government led by the left.

Bennett’s apparent about-face Sunday sparked mockery from his political rivals.

“Apparently the reason Netanyahu does not carry credit cards is that Bennett takes up all the room in his pocket,” tweeted Joint List leader Ayman Odeh.

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope political party, speaks during a Channel 12 News conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sa’ar said on Twitter that Bennett had “failed to withstand the pressure” exerted by Netanyahu.

“It is now completely clear: a few meters before the finish line, Bennett collapsed straight into Netanyahu’s arms,” Sa’ar said.

Last week Netanyahu tried to get Bennett to sign a loyalty pledge, when on Friday morning, Bennett woke up to find a large contingent of police officers and security guards outside his home in Ra’anana for a visit planned by Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, however, never showed and the barricades were taken down hours later. The security preparations cost hundreds of thousands of shekels, according to Channels 12 and 13.

The incident came a day after Bennett rebuffed a Likud minister’s call for him to pledge to back Netanyahu to form a government.

In this November 24, 2019 photo, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP, File)

Bennett was previously part of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties. Since being left out of the government Netanyahu formed last year with the Blue and White party, Bennett has become a vocal critic of the prime minister’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but — unlike other rivals of the premier — has not ruled out joining a Likud-led government after the elections.

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