3 leaders said to agree in principle on 24-minister cabinet

Lapid, Bennett, Sa’ar said progressing in marathon talks on ‘change bloc’ gov’t

Yesh Atid, Yamina, New Hope meet for day-long session; Ayelet Shaked said to seek return to Justice Ministry; Ra’am hints at ‘significant development’

Party leaders ahead of the 2021 elections (from left): Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gideon Sa'ar, Benny Gantz (Courtesy)
Party leaders ahead of the 2021 elections (from left): Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gideon Sa'ar, Benny Gantz (Courtesy)

Negotiators from the Yesh Atid, Yamina and New Hope parties held marathon day-long talks on Thursday at the Knesset in a bid to narrow the gaps that remain to forming a broad-based unity government that would see Israel’s longest-serving premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, pushed out of office.

Disagreements surfaced over ministries and negotiating schedules as the sides sought to build the trust required to hold together a coalition straddling the fault lines of Israeli politics. But Hebrew media reports said Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina head Naftali Bennett and New Hope’s leader Gideon Sa’ar had agreed in principle on a government of 24 ministers — six larger than Lapid had wanted — and were aiming to finalize the division of ministerial portfolios by Saturday night.

Just five days remain for Netanyahu to try to form a government before he is required to return the mandate to President Reuven Rivlin.

In a statement, Yamina said the negotiators discussed the parties’ demands and what steps are needed to assemble a coalition. It did not elaborate. After the meeting, Lapid said the parties were in agreement on numerous issues. Still, major gaps reportedly remained between the sides.

Former justice minister and Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ayelet Shaked, Yamina’s no. 2 and a former justice minister, has reportedly demanded to return to the justice ministry that is currently slated for New Hope’s Gidon Sa’ar. The conservative Shaked has faced a concerted campaign from the right, especially Likud, not to support a unity government with the left, and is believed to be seeking the justice post so she can explain her membership in the new government as a defense of right-wing policies in the ministry.

If Shaked takes the justice post from Sa’ar, he will demand either the finance ministry, currently slated for Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, or the defense portfolio now held by Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, sources said.

The talks also revealed lingering distrust between the parties.

Lapid and Bennett are each reportedly working to secure for themselves the next presidential mandate to form the government if Netanyahu fails to do so. By law, the candidate that holds the mandate controls the Knesset Arrangements Committee, the body that sets the legislative schedule and staffs the other Knesset committees until a coalition is formally established.

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

Lapid, Hebrew media reports said, fears that if Bennett controls the mandate, he may turn his back on the unity government and form a coalition with Likud in exchange for the first turn in a rotating premiership. According to some Hebrew media reports, Bennett is keen to secure the mandate because that would enable him to keep open the option of a coalition with either bloc, or even to facilitate the snap vote Netanyahu is seeking for the direct election of the prime minister.

Perhaps to head off that possibility, Lapid demanded in the Thursday talks that his party be given the Knesset speakership as part of any deal, naming Yesh Atid’s Meir Cohen for the job.

Lapid said in a Facebook post that the parties had agreed that on issues of religion and state they must act “wisely and mainly cautiously.”

Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid gestures as he speaks during a conference in Jerusalem, March 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“Politics and religion are a problematic mix and we have no interest in trampling on anyone,” Lapid wrote, adding that “the issues under dispute are clear to all the sides and now is the time to also look for issues on which there is agreement.”

The comments were widely seen as a gesture to the Haredi parties that remain at Netanyahu’s side for now. Bennett reportedly hopes to draw them into the unity coalition after it is established, a move that will require difficult compromises from secular Yesh Atid and Israel Beytenu, but which could expand and stabilize a unity coalition.

The Yesh Atid leader also said the parties had agreed on the need for a new generation of prime ministers in Israel, after 12 consecutive years of Netanyahu’s leadership.

“The first law that needs to be passed is a term limit for the prime minister,” he said.

An associate of Mansour Abbas, who leads the Islamist Ra’am party, told Channel 12 Thursday that a significant development was likely to be announced on Saturday evening regarding the efforts of the “change bloc” of anti-Netanyahu parties to form a government.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett met with Abbas on Wednesday, a first for the Yamina leader, who had previously warned against political cooperation with the Islamist party.

Tayibe Mayor Sha’a Mansour Massarwa said Thursday that “Bennett initiated an additional meeting with Abbas. There will be developments not just between Ra’am and Bennett, but in the bloc opposed to Netanyahu more generally.”

Abbas said Thursday that his Islamist party, which emerged as an unlikely potential kingmaker in the wake of the elections in March, had not yet decided whether to back a government led by Netanyahu or a coalition headed by the premier’s rivals. Bennett and Sa’ar planned to meet with Abbas on Friday, Channel 12 reported.

“Ultimately, any government that is formed will need both Ra’am and Yamina,” Abbas told Kan public radio’s Arabic-language station.

The two parties are the only ones that in last month’s elections refused to back either Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc or the rival bloc led by Lapid.

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)

Yamina and New Hope officials met on Wednesday to coordinate their views and enter into negotiations with Lapid as a unified right-wing bloc within the prospective future unity government.

Channel 13 reported Thursday that Lapid and Bennett have agreed to finalize all ministerial appointments by Saturday evening.

A Bennett-Lapid government would be based on a rotation of the premiership between the two men. However, Bennett is said to be facing reluctance from within his own right-wing party to enter into a government that would include left-wing parties like Meretz and Labor.

Some media reports indicated that Shaked has campaigned against the unity government within Yamina, and some of Yamina’s seven lawmakers may opt not to enter the new coalition, according to Channel 12. That would further hamper Lapid’s efforts to build a viable coalition.

MK Ayelet Shaked speaks during the Israel Social Cohesion Summit in the Airport City business complex, on November 5, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

Shaked and Bennett are both believed to favor drawing the ultra-Orthodox parties into the coalition in part as a counterweight to the left and to expand the coalition to the point that it doesn’t have to rely on Ra’am.

Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich assailed Bennett over his meeting with Abbas on Wednesday, noting that Ra’am was a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and rejects Zionism.

“A government with Abbas is like a government with Hamas,” said the far-right leader, who over the last three weeks has refused to cooperate with Netanyahu’s efforts to rope Ra’am into his own coalition. Observers have noted that those efforts by Netanyahu made it politically viable for Yamina to court Abbas’s support.

Bennett before the election had called on Netanyahu to pledge not to form a government reliant on Ra’am, while he himself vowed not to make a rotation deal with Lapid.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Another potential obstacle to a unity government could be Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, who repeatedly refused in a Wednesday interview with Channel 12 to vow not to join a Netanyahu government. Asked several times whether he ruled it out entirely, Gantz curiously would not do so but would only say “there is no possibility” for such a government. This, despite having long acknowledged that he was duped by the prime minister and insisting that the Likud leader could not be trusted.

Gantz said Netanyahu had phoned him on Wednesday to once again offer the Blue and White chairman first turn as prime minister in a rotation agreement. But he also said he told the prime minister that this was “not possible.”

Pundits were divided as to whether Gantz had simply made an on-air gaffe, was still seriously considering cooperating with Netanyahu despite all of the bad blood between them, or was seeking to improve his negotiating position with Lapid and Bennett, so that they don’t take his partnership for granted. Gantz said he planned to demand that both the defense and justice portfolios remain with his party in the next government.

Should no government be formed by either side, the country will soon head to its fifth snap election in two and a half years.

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