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Rebel Yamina MK Chikli: Bennett went back on core promises

Negotiations advance, with Lapid said set to announce government within 1-2 days

‘Significant progress’ reported in overnight talks between ‘change bloc’ parties; Likud sources vow to try to thwart emerging coalition but admit it will be ‘almost impossible’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset on September 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in the Knesset on September 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Yamina party chairman Naftali Bennett’s announcement that he plans to join with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in a unity government ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, negotiating teams from the two parties and others in the so-called “change bloc” met overnight Sunday-Monday in an attempt to seal a deal to form their new coalition.

“Significant progress” was made in the four-way talks between representatives from Yamina, Yesh Atid, New Hope and Blue and White, Hebrew media reported Monday, with the parties set to continue negotiations throughout the day.

At the same time, several disagreements over certain ministerial portfolios were reported, with various parties demanding greater responsibilities in the government set to be made up of at least seven parties.

Under the emerging rotation deal between Yamina and Yesh Atid, Bennett would serve as prime minister until September 2023 and then hand the reins to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Joining the coalition will be a mix of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties that won’t join a government led by Netanyahu, who is on trial in three criminal cases.

According to several reports, Lapid — who was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government after Netanyahu failed to do so — plans to announce that he has succeeded in coalescing a coalition by Tuesday, or as early as the end of Monday. He has until Wednesday to formally tell the president that a government has been agreed upon.

Lapid, who has so far reached informal coalition agreements with Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz, and Labor, will deliver a statement on the ongoing coalition negotiations at the opening of his Yesh Atid party faction meeting at the Knesset Monday afternoon. He will also take questions from reporters.

Bennett announced Sunday that he would team up with Lapid to form a coalition, promising a right-leaning unity government that will end over two years of political deadlock and oust Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in power.

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, on May 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The elections have proven there is no [possible] right-wing government under Netanyahu. There’s unity or fifth elections,” Bennett said in a nationally televised address, after weeks of vacillating between talks with Lapid and talks with Netanyahu, in which it seemed he could end up backing either leader.

The announcement confirmed days of rumors that Bennett had opted for a rotational deal with Lapid that will place the right-wing party leader in the prime minister’s chair for the next two years, potentially setting in motion a major change in Israeli politics that will see Netanyahu shunted from power by his former allies after repeatedly failing to cobble together enough support for his own coalition.

As negotiations to form a Bennett-Lapid government continue, Netanyahu intends to continue to pressure Yamina MKs to defect from the party and vote against the alternative government, Likud sources told the Kan public broadcaster Monday, though they admitted that such a possibility seemed unlikely.

“He does not intend to give up, and we have seen that the situation is fragile on the right, but it is going to be almost impossible to prevent the government,” an unnamed Likud source said.

The nascent Bennett-Lapid coalition apparently has the support of 61 MKs in the 120-seat Knesset, so even a single defection could deprive it of a majority. And it still needs the confirmed support of the Islamist Ra’am party, which has yet to publicly commit to giving the coalition the backing of its four Knesset members.

Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on May 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a rebuttal minutes after Bennett spoke, Netanyahu accused Bennett of being a serial flip-flopper responsible for the “scam of the century.” Netanyahu claimed that he could indeed put together a right-wing government and could still thwart the Bennett-Lapid change bloc with enough defectors, calling on right-wing MKs to reject his rivals’ move.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli, who has already vowed not to join a Lapid coalition, said Monday that the party had broken its core promises to the electorate.

“In recent months, I have done everything I can to ensure that Yamina gets a significant achievement in the elections and that Naftali Bennett becomes the prime minister of Israel,” Chikli wrote on Facebook. “I believed in him, in his honesty, in his love for Israel and in his Zionism, and I supported him with full force… but this is not the way.”

Noting Bennett’s campaign promise not to allow Lapid to become prime minister as part of a rotation deal, Chikli said that Bennett had “violated [Yamina’s] promises to its electorate while blatantly violating the most basic democratic code, telling the truth to the voter and making a sincere effort to meet its obligations to it.”

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, a member of the left-wing Meretz party said his ideological camp has also made significant compromises in the deal.

“We are giving up many of our principles in order to remove Netanyahu from his throne,” Meretz MK Yair Golan told Radio 103FM Monday.

Bennett said in his Sunday speech: “No one will be asked to give up their ideology [in the planned new coalition], but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams. We will focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible.”

Along with the reports of progress in the talks, several disagreements over the control of certain ministries and the powers to be given to each party have emerged.

According to the Ynet news site, New Hope is demanding that its MK Yoaz Handel be appointed tourism or communications minister, portfolios both currently said to be going to Yesh Atid.

If the demand is accepted, four of the six New Hope MKs would end up serving as ministers — party leader Gideon Saar as justice minister, Yifat Shasha Bitton as education minister, Zeev Elkin as housing minister, and Handel, the report said.

Several reports have also pointed to a disagreement over the agriculture portfolio, which Blue and White is said to be demanding despite an earlier promise for it to be controlled by the Yisrael Beytenu party.

Additionally, Yisrael Beytenu is fighting Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked’s reported demand that the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee be closed and its responsibilities given to her as Interior Minister. Yisrael Beytenu had reportedly previously been promised the ministry.

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

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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