Lapid, Gantz meet as Yesh Atid leader hopes for chance to form coalition

De facto head of ‘change bloc’ meeting other party leaders, planning public address; Smotrich said to prefer Arab-backed Bennett-Lapid coalition over Ra’am-backed right-wing gov’t

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Then-Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then-Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid met with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz Saturday evening as the de facto head of the “change bloc” seeks a way to form a coalition, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently stuck in his own ongoing efforts.

Gantz recommended that Lapid be tapped with forming the next government, but the Yesh Atid leader received fewer recommendations than Netanyahu, who was given the first stab.

Lapid, who hopes to be tasked with forming a coalition when Netanyahu’s opportunity to do so ends on May 4, has plans to meet with the heads of other parties that have vowed not to sit in a government with Netanyahu later in the week, Yesh Atid confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The party also confirmed that Lapid is planning to deliver a prime-time public speech on Sunday in which he will discuss his efforts to create a “broad unity government.”

Those efforts come as Netanyahu appears to be struggling to find 61 Knesset members willing to form a Likud-led government.

With Netanyahu lacking a clear majority following the March 23 election, multiple — and mostly improbable — scenarios have been floated on how to reach the magic number of 61, including relying on outside support from the Islamist party Ra’am, despite opposition from far-right lawmakers including Bezalel Smotrich; trying to recruit “defectors” from other parties; and trying to get the New Hope party headed by Gideon Sa’ar to join such a coalition.

Netanyahu has been said to be trying to convince Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionism party, to accept Ra’am’s support for a one-off vote that would allow the establishment of the government.

But according to Channel 12, Smotrich has said that he would prefer a coalition led by Yesh Atid and Yamina and backed by either the majority-Arab Joint List or Ra’am parties (in which Smotrich would not take part), as opposed to a right-wing government backed by Ra’am.

Head of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich gives a press statement in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, April 4, 2021. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

On Twitter on Friday, Smotrich reiterated his opposition to Ra’am, calling the party “dangerous,” and claiming that Netanyahu has not approached him with the idea of a government backed by the Islamist faction.

“So far he has not even hinted that he intends to form a government that relies on them,” Smotrich said.

“Netanyahu repeatedly pledged during the election campaign not to form a government that relies on [Ra’am leader Mansour] Abbas and I do not imagine that he even thinks of acting contrary to the commitment of a government based on dangerous terror-supporters and anti-Zionists,” the Religious Zionism leader charged.

In efforts to bring over some of those parties who have vowed not to sit with him, on Friday Netanyahu called upon Sa’ar — a longtime political rival, even in times when he and Netanyahu were both in the Likud party — to join a coalition with Likud in order to allow the formation of a right-wing government.

“This is your home, you will be welcomed with open arms,” Netanyahu wrote to Sa’ar.

A former Likud minister, Sa’ar campaigned on a pledge not to join a government led by the incumbent prime minister and has so far rebuffed Netanyahu’s appeals to scrap the promise.

Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu was now willing to offer Sa’ar several lucrative posts for his party, including deputy prime minister and Knesset speaker. The report said that Netanyahu had resisted doing so until now because he feared it would be perceived as rewarding challenges from within the Likud, but now recognized he had no choice.

A composite image shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Gideon Sa’ar, right. (Flash90)

According to Channel 12, Sa’ar responded with skepticism to the “open arms” offer, saying: “You have to open your arms before you strangle somebody.”

If Netanyahu does not succeed by May 4 and Rivlin does not grant him an extension, the latter can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government.

Rivlin has indicated that he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset. He also appears unlikely to grant an extension to Netanyahu before doing so.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election.

TOI staff contributed to this report.

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