PM urges Sa'ar, Bennett to rejoin him at this 'fateful' hour

Last-ditch offer: Netanyahu says Sa’ar can be PM 1st in 3-way deal with Bennett

As New Hope leader, Yamina chief are expected to form coalition ousting him from power, premier sweetens proposal; Sa’ar dismisses offer as ‘spin,’ says Netanyahu must be replaced

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on July 29, 2013, with Naftali Bennett (left) and Gideon Sa'ar. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on July 29, 2013, with Naftali Bennett (left) and Gideon Sa'ar. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)

Faced with the immediate prospect of being ousted from office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday made a last-ditch offer to New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar and Yamina chief Naftali Bennett in hopes of preventing them from forming a government with centrist and left-wing parties.

The Ynet news site cited sources in Yamina as saying that if Sa’ar accepts the offer, “a right-wing government will be formed.”

However, Sa’ar said in response that his party’s “position and commitment was, and remains, to replace the Netanyahu government,” adding that the proposal was “spin.” The Walla news site said that Sa’ar was under serious pressure from MK Ze’ev Elkin to accept the offer.

Bennett had been expected, following a faction meeting Sunday, to announce later in the day that he will back the formation of a coalition of the so-called “change bloc,” which would see him become prime minister in a power-sharing deal with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Political sources said Netanyahu has now proposed a three-way power-sharing right-wing government in which Sa’ar would go first as premier for a year and three months, Netanyahu would then lead the country for two years, and Bennett would then serve for a year and a half.

The offer was said to include a promise from Netanyahu to pass a law setting term limits on the prime minister.

Still, Yamina delayed its faction meeting by four hours, to 2 p.m., to allow more time to discuss the proposal. In the meeting, Bennett had been expected to present the party’s lawmakers with the plan to ally with the bloc of Netanyahu rivals led by Lapid and persuade the right-wing MKs to get on board with the plan.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli announced earlier this month he would not support a Bennett-Lapid government. It remains unclear whether other members of the right-wing party will join him in opposing the alliance of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties propped up by the Islamist Ra’am party.

Meanwhile, negotiation teams for New Hope and Yesh Atid met Sunday morning to discuss the latest development.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked gives a statement to the press at the Knesset on May 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu later issued a statement inviting Bennett and Sa’ar to a meeting on behalf of all party leaders in his bloc.

“This is a fateful moment for the security, character and future of the State of Israel,” he said. “At a fateful moment like this, all personal considerations must be put aside and far-reaching, even unprecedented steps must be taken. All the leaders of right-wing parties, including me, invite Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, to come now, immediately, to a meeting that will enable the establishment of a good right-wing government for the State of Israel.”

The “change bloc,” with six of Yamina’s seven seats, numbers 57 MKs. Ra’am’s four MKs would hand it a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, allowing a government to be formed. But a rebellion by some Yamina lawmakers, or members of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, could unravel the plan.

Channel 13 news reported Saturday that should more rebels emerge in Yamina, the predominantly Arab Joint List may agree to provide the bloc with a “safety net” to ensure it a Knesset majority. There was no official confirmation of the report.

According to Channel 12 news, Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked, who in recent days had been seen as a key holdout on joining the so-called “change bloc,” has agreed with Bennett to join a power-sharing government led by Bennett and Lapid.

The government would bring together parties from the right (Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, New Hope), center (Yesh Atid, Blue and White) and left (Labor, Meretz), with support from the Arab Ra’am party (apparently from outside the coalition), in a unity government that would seek to extract Israel from two years of political stagnation, spearhead the country’s recovery from coronavirus and heal societal rifts in a deeply divided nation.

Under the reported deal, Bennett would serve as prime minister for the government’s first two years, with Lapid replacing him for the final two.

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

Media reports differed on whether Bennett had already made a final decision to join Lapid. Channel 12 and Kan news said Bennett was resolved to do so, saying he would publicly announce the decision on Sunday evening, with Lapid — who is currently mandated by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government — planning to visit the president on Monday to inform him he had succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Ynet news site reported that Bennett had told operatives a decision would be made in the next day or two.

According to Channel 12, Shaked had conditioned her support on Netanyahu failing to form a coalition himself. Kan news said Shaked was still hopeful of the possibility of New Hope and Sa’ar being persuaded to join Yamina and Netanyahu to form a right-wing government, but Bennett believed this was impossible.

Shaked is believed to fear a right-wing backlash from voters who prefer a government headed by the conservative Netanyahu than one backed and eventually headed by the centrist Lapid.

Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony for the victims of the 1948 Altalena incident, at Nachalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv on May 26, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Lapid’s mandate to form a government ends in four days. He has so far reached informal coalition agreements with Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and Labor, and is hoping to seal deals with Blue and White and New Hope in the next few days.

According to reports, Netanyahu planned to intensify his pressure campaign on Yamina members to refuse to support the emerging coalition.

Netanyahu has accused the nationalist Bennett of seeking to form a left-wing government due to political ambition and of betraying the right (though Bennett supported Netanyahu’s own efforts to form a government until those failed). The new government is expected to seek to avoid issues of controversy between left and right and focus on economic and social matters.

Dueling protests took place Saturday night outside the homes of Bennett, Shaked and Sa’ar between activists who oppose the “change government” and those who back it.

Israelis protest outside the home of Yamina party Naftali Bennet, with signs reading ‘You promised change — now deliver,’ on May 29, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that should he be ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu has no intention of resigning, and plans to lead the opposition while engaging in attacks against Yamina and intense efforts to break up the coalition along ideological lines.

Following is the emerging makeup of the new “change” government, should it be formed:

Prime Minister — Naftali Bennett (Yamina; rotating with Lapid after two years)

Foreign Minister — Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid)

Defense Minister — Benny Gantz (Blue and White)

Finance Minister — Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu)

Justice Minister — Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope)

Interior Minister — Ayelet Shaked (Yamina)

Transportation Minister — Merav Michaeli (Labor)

Education Minister — Yifat Shasha-Bitton (New Hope)

Public Security Minister — Omer Bar-Lev (Labor)

Health Minister — Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz)

Immigrant Absorption Minister — Pnina Tamano-Shata (Blue and White)

Culture Minister — Chili Tropper (Blue and White)

Communications Minister — Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid)

Religious Affairs Minister — Matan Kahana (Yamina)

Agriculture Minister — Alon Schuster (Blue and White)

Environmental Protection Minister –– Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)

Regional Cooperation Minister — Issawi Frej (Meretz)

Knesset Speaker — Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid)

(Further ministries pending)

If Lapid cannot build a majority by June 2, the Knesset would have 21 days to agree on a prime minister; otherwise, Israel would head to its fifth elections in two-and-a-half years.

Netanyahu has been in power since 2009, but has failed to decisively win four elections since 2019, and his political future has been complicated by being indicted in three criminal cases.

According to Channel 12, in an attempt to prevent Likud’s fall from power, Finance Minister Israel Katz recently proposed to Netanyahu to hold fresh primaries for the party leadership, with the winner replacing him as prime minister for a single year — after which he would presumably return.

Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Katz apparently thought this would allow parties that oppose Netanyahu, including Sa’ar’s New Hope, to join the government, and reportedly believed he would win the primaries and become prime minister.

Netanyahu rejected the offer, the network said.

After three inconclusive elections, Netanyahu finally convinced Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to join him in a power-sharing government in mid-2020. Netanyahu was to have served as prime minister for 18 months before handing over to Gantz in November 2021. However, late last year Likud and Blue and White’s government, dysfunctional since day one, fell apart over Netanyahu’s refusal to pass a two-year budget as had originally been agreed between the sides.

The government’s collapse and Israel’s subsequent fourth election in two years this past March was widely seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to avoid honoring his deal with Gantz and to cement his hold on power in the wake of the successful effort against coronavirus and normalization deals with several Arab countries.

Instead, the election ended with the Knesset mired in much the same gridlock that followed the previous three votes.

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