'We will do everything to unite Israeli society'

Lapid informs president he can form government removing Netanyahu from power

But coalition won’t be finalized until Knesset vote in up to 12 days; right-wing MK could oppose it, possibly dooming bid; Ra’am is 1st Arab party in decades to ink coalition deal

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra'am)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L), Yamina leader Naftali Bennett (C) and Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas sign a coalition agreement on June 2, 2021. (Courtesy of Ra'am)

Thirty-five minutes before a midnight deadline, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on Wednesday night informed President Reuven Rivlin he is able to form a government in which he and Yamina chief Naftali Bennett will switch off as prime minister, positioning themselves to replace Israel’s longest-serving leader Benjamin Netanyahu as premier.

Under the terms of the new coalition, Bennett is to serve as prime minister until September 2023, when Lapid will take over from him until the end of the Knesset term in November 2025. The agreement came together after Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas threw his support behind the would-be government late on Wednesday night, setting up his Islamist party to be the first majority Arab party in decades to be part of a ruling coalition.

Despite Lapid’s declaration, it remained unclear that the prospective “change government” will make it past the finish line. It is set to include 61 of the 120 MKs — the narrowest possible majority. And an MK from Bennett’s Yamina, Nir Orbach, earlier on Wednesday night announced he could vote against the new coalition, a move that could potentially doom the prospective razor-thin government of right-wing, centrist, left-wing parties and the Islamist Ra’am.

“I am honored to inform you that I have succeeded in forming a government,” Lapid told Rivlin according to a Yesh Atid statement. “The government will be an alternate government in accordance with Clause 13(a) of the Basic Law: The Government, and MK Naftali Bennett will serve as prime minister first.”

“I congratulate you and the heads of the parties on your agreement to form a government. We expect the Knesset will convene as soon as possible to ratify the government, as required,” Rivlin told Lapid in the phone call between them on Wednesday night, according to the President’s Office.

“This government will work for all the citizens of Israel, those that voted for it and those that didn’t. It will do everything to unite Israeli society,” Lapid promised.

“Today, we succeeded. We made history,” said Merav Michaeli, the Labor leader.

The Knesset must now schedule a vote of confidence in the new government. However, as the next plenum session is not until Monday, June 7, it would only be then that the Knesset Speaker, Likud’s Yariv Levin, is formally informed that he needs to schedule a vote on the new government.

He then has up to a week to schedule that vote, so it may only be held on June 14, giving Netanyahu and his supporters 12 days to try to deprive Lapid and Bennett of their majority.

The Lapid-Bennett coalition may try to oust Speaker Levin if he does not schedule the vote sooner than June 14, Channel 12 reported.

A photo montage shows the leaders of parties in the prospective “change government” that Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid announced he can form on June 2, 2021. (Flash90)

Lapid on Wednesday night urged Levin “to fulfil the legal responsibility incumbent upon him and call a special session of the plenary as soon as possible during which he will inform the Knesset that Yesh Atid Chairperson, Yair Lapid, has succeeded in forming a government.”

The intended Lapid-Bennett government is backed by eight of the 13 parties that won seats in the March 23 election, for an apparent total of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset: Yesh Atid (17 seats), Blue and White (8), Yisrael Beytenu (7), Labor (7), Yamina (6 of its 7 MKs), New Hope (6), Meretz (6) and Ra’am (4).

Yamina’s seventh MK, Amichai Chikli has announced he will vote against the planned government. If Orbach were also to do so, this could deny the planned new government of its wafer-thin majority. However, while four of the six MKs in the Joint List of mainly Arab parties have stated that they will vote against the planned government, the other two have not yet specified how they will vote. Bennett and Orbach are set to meet on Thursday.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party arrives to coalition talks at the Maccabiah village in Ramat Gan on June 2, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

The nail-biting coalition talks continued past 11 p.m. on Wednesday night, with Ra’am inking its coalition deal around an hour before the deadline. New Hope and Yamina followed a short while later.

“This is the first time an Arab party is a partner in the formation of a government,” said Ra’am’s Abbas. “This agreement has a lot of things for the benefit of Arab society, and Israeli society in general.”

Another last-minute hurdle the parties overcame was a tussle between the right-wing Yamina and center-left Labor party over the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee.

Under the emerging coalition agreements, Lapid will serve as foreign minister in the first two years of the government, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will remain defense minister, and the treasury will be held by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman. New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar will be justice minister, while Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked will be interior minister. Labor’s Michaeli received the transportation portfolio and her fellow party member Omer Barlev will be public security minister. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz will be appointed health minister, while fellow party member Tamar Zandberg will be environmental protection minister and Issawi Frej regional cooperation minister.

The final coalition agreements have yet to be formally released and negotiations are expected to continue until the swearing-in vote.

Lapid was tasked last month by Rivlin with forming a government after Netanyahu was given first crack but failed to cobble together a ruling majority. The March 23 elections, the fourth since April 2019, again saw Netanyahu and his right-wing religious bloc fall short of a majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu and his political allies have been pressing lawmakers in Yamina and the fellow right-wing New Hope party not to form a government with Lapid, with that pressure expected to further grow in the days before the Knesset vote is held.

If the emerging government is sworn in, Israel will have a new prime minister for the first time since 2009. Along with the over 12 consecutive years he has served as premier since then, Netanyahu was also prime minister for three years in the late 1990s.

Israel has been mired in political deadlock since the Knesset dissolved in December 2018, with the four rounds of elections held since then failing to result in a decisive majority for either Netanyahu or his rivals. Besides fighting for his political survival, Netanyahu is currently on trial in three corruption cases.

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