Lapid, Sa’ar renew coalition talks as Yesh Atid MK says Bennett could yet join

After opposition leader’s party reaches understandings with several others, lawmaker Mickey Levy expresses confidence all details can be worked out with Yamina in 24 hours

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)
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)

Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party renewed negotiations with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Thursday, in a move that puts further pressure on Yamina chief Naftali Bennett to join a potential “change government” ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A Yesh Atid MK expressed confidence that all relevant matters can be sorted out with the Yamina party within a single day. However, the path isn’t simple to the formation of a government that includes the right-wing Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu, the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White, and the left-wing Labor and Meretz — with the support of the Islamist party Ra’am.

A negotiation team for New Hope — which campaigned on a right-wing, anti-Netanyahu ticket in the March election — met with a Yesh Atid team on Thursday.

“Negotiations progressed and agreements were reached,” the two parties said in a joint statement following the meeting. “The teams will continue talks in the near future with the aim of reaching agreements to form a government,” the statement added.

Sa’ar and Lapid haven’t met since fighting between Israel and the Hamas terror group in Gaza broke out several weeks ago, according to the Haaretz daily. The outlet quoted Yesh Atid sources as saying they had wanted to renew the talks earlier this week but were turned down.

Yesh Atid — whose leader has just six days remaining to announce he has formed a government before he has to return his mandate to do so — has reached final agreements with the Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu parties, and near-final understandings with Blue and White and Labor. An unnamed official in the so-called “change bloc” told Channel 13 news Wednesday that “the government is almost finalized, we are waiting for Bennett.”

The understandings have included handing out potential ministerial and other roles to members of the various parties, as well as agreements on policy. No official coalition deals have been signed.

Bennett has refused to commit to either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs, keeping his options open. He has vowed to do “everything” to prevent the country from going to its fifth election in two and a half years.

The potential deal with Yesh Atid would see Bennett serve as prime minister for two years, followed by Lapid for two years. But Bennett is facing intense pressure from the right against a government that includes the left. His deputy Ayelet Shaked is also said to be strongly opposed.

The most thorny subject is the need to receive support from either Ra’am or the Arab-majority Joint List, both of which are highly controversial for the right due to their strong affinity toward the Palestinians. However, Netanyahu’s own attempt to form a government with Ra’am’s backing (blocked by Religious Zionism and its leader Bezalel Smotrich) has helped legitimize such cooperation.

Bennett and Lapid had reportedly finalized the terms for a coalition several weeks ago, just before the military operation in Gaza began, prompting the Yamina leader to say a “change government” backed by Islamist Ra’am was “off the table.” He and other Yamina members have avoided repeating that sentiment this week, despite heavy pressure from Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc to entirely rule out the prospect.

Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich visit at a protest tent of settler leaders, outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, February 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a press conference Wednesday, Religious Zionism’s Smotrich accused Yamina of “scamming” the public and said: “Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked soothed right-wing voters and created the false appearance that the change government had been taken off the table, while in actuality they continued to work to form a leftist government with terror supporters.”

Shaked hit back at Smotrich during a televised statement several hours later, saying Yamina’s top priority was “saving Israel from the chaos” by working to form a government.

“And for this we’re paying a heavy public price, but we’re proud of it,” she said.

She called Smotrich “the greatest obstacle to a right-wing government” and accused him of leading Israel to fifth elections that she claimed would end in a “historic loss” for the right.

MK Mickey Levy, seen during a meeting of the Finance Committee in the Israeli parliament on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Despite the challenges, Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy told Radio 103FM on Thursday that Yamina hasn’t ruled out joining forces with the anti-Netanyahu bloc.

“We can close all the details with Naftali Bennett within 24 hours,” he said.

Levy added that Lapid was “leaving no stone unturned” in his efforts to form a government.

“Anyone who doesn’t help this process for ulterior motives is simply dragging us to fifth elections,” he said.

Bennett is officially only negotiating with Netanyahu, who has offered a merger between his Likud party and Yamina in potential upcoming elections.

However, there has been no progress on that front. Netanyahu has reportedly promised he can bring defector MKs from other parties to bring his numbers up to 61-MK majority if Bennett publicly declares he rules out a government without Netanyahu.

Channel 12 reported Wednesday that some ministers and lawmakers from Likud were considering opposing a merger with Yamina, because such a move would come at the expense of Likud backbenchers.

In this Sunday, 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)

According to Lapid’s understandings with the various parties, the potential government would include some 25 ministers, far fewer than the previous government’s 34 but still significantly higher than the 18 he had sought.

Such a government envisions Bennett as prime minister — later replaced by Lapid — with Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked as interior minister and Matan Kahana as religious affairs minister. New Hope’s leader, Sa’ar, would be appointed justice minister, its MK Yifat Shasha-Biton would be education minister, and the party’s Yoaz Hendel would also be a minister.

Lapid himself would be foreign minister and alternate prime minister. Yesh Atid would get three more ministries, and its MK Meir Cohen would be Knesset speaker.

Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on May 6, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Blue and White would get the defense portfolio in addition to either immigrant absorption or welfare, and either culture or agriculture.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli would become transportation minister, MK Omer Bar-Lev would be public security minister and the party would get another ministerial position. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz would get the health portfolio, with MK Tamar Zandberg as environmental protection minister and MK Issawi Frej as regional cooperation minister.

Yisrael Beytenu would have control over the country’s treasury, with Avigdor Liberman serving as finance minister and another lawmaker heading the Knesset’s Finance Committee. MK Oded Forer would be minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, while another party MK would get either immigrant absorption or welfare.

Ra’am is reportedly willing to back such a government in some capacity if a majority becomes viable. It won’t demand ministry portfolios and will be content with government funding for Arab communities and causes, as well as the positions of deputy Knesset speaker and chairperson of a Knesset committee.

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