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Netanyahu, Bennett to meet again after ‘positive’ talks at PM’s residence

Meeting is first time Yamina leader allowed in premier’s home in a decade after reported ban by Sara Netanyahu; PM also meets Religious Zionism’s Smotrich

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the PM's official residence in Jerusalem, on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the PM's official residence in Jerusalem, on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Seeking a path to securing a ruling majority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett Thursday evening in the first sit-down between the two since the premier was tasked with forming a coalition.

The meeting, which began at 8:30 p.m., was held at the prime minister’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. After the meeting, Netanyahu’s Likud and and Bennett’s Yamina parties put out a joint statement saying there was a “positive atmosphere” and the two men would meet again.

It was the first time Bennett had been allowed into the complex in over a decade, due to past tensions between him and Netanyahu. The premier’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, has reportedly long vetoed Bennett’s entry. But now Netanyahu depends on Bennett’s support if he wants to keep his hope of forming a government alive.

In consultations Monday with President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu received the endorsement from representatives of 52 lawmakers, the most of any candidate but short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Yamina, with seven seats, recommended Bennett as prime minister, the only party to do so. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid got 45 endorsements. New Hope, Ra’am and the Joint List, with 16 seats between them, did not recommend any candidate for prime minister. On Tuesday, a reluctant Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with forming a government.

Bennett on Tuesday said he was open to talks with Likud and called for a right-wing government, but didn’t commit to backing Netanyahu. Even with Yamina’s support, Netanyahu’s bloc would still be two seats short of a majority, with limited options.

Party leaders pose for a group picture after the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, April 6, 2021. Seated from left are Supreme Court president Esther Hayut, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Speaking to reporters before entering the prime minister’s residence Thursday, Bennett said he was committed to forming a government and avoiding new elections.

“I come here with a lot of goodwill and I pledge to do everything I can to rescue Israel from the chaos and establish a good government for the State of Israel,” Bennett said. “It is time for national responsibility.”

Since being tasked with putting together a government, Netanyahu has met with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, both of which had endorsed him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset vote on December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Before Thursday’s meeting with Bennett, Netanyahu met with MK Bezalel Smotrich, whose far-right Religious Zionism party has firmly aligned itself with the prime minister. It has, however, also said it will not sit in a coalition supported by the Islamist Ra’am party, the apparent only other option remaining for Netanyahu with all others having ruled out joining his coalition.

Speaking Wednesday before meeting with Netanyahu, United Torah Judaism No. 2. Yaakov Litzman hinted at the possibility that Religious Zionism could officially stay out of government while supporting it from the outside, in order not to be part of a coalition dependent on Arab Israeli parties.

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

But in a Thursday evening interview before meeting with Netanyahu, Smotrich said it was dangerous to form a government reliant on “the Arabs.”

“My goal is to be a right-wing government. A government with Arabs will not be able to do anything right-wing,” Smotrich told Radio 103. “Do you think that Bibi will succeed in launching an operation in Gaza if there is a government with Abbas? You do not understand what it means to be hostage,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Channel 12 news reported Thursday that one option Netanyahu was weighing was trying to convince Smotrich and Ra’am to come together just for one vote: forming a coalition that will then immediately fall, sending the country to its fifth elections in 2.5 years.

That would nullify the current coalition agreement, which gives Benny Gantz’s Blue and White and his bloc 50 percent control over the government and a veto over critical matters. Perhaps even more significantly, it would remove the threat of Gantz replacing Netanyahu as prime minister on November 17, which will happen automatically if no new coalition is formed by then.

Despite Shas and UTJ’s public expressions of support, television reports said they told Netanyahu in their meeting with him that they will not go with him to fifth elections.

The Haredi parties noted Bennett’s potential options for forming a government and predicted he would not forgo the opportunity to be prime minister, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Ahead of Bennett’s meeting with Netanyahu, the network on Thursday cited an official in the ultra-Orthodox parties telling the Yamina party chief that they would consider joining a government without Netanyahu’s Likud if the status quo on religious matters was upheld.

The parties would reportedly consider the option if Bennett manages to ensure a government with secularists Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman won’t change the current state of affairs regarding religion and state.

A report on Channel 12 news on Wednesday, however, said that the ultra-Orthodox parties had asked Netanyahu to do everything to prevent the formation of a government that would see Bennett and Lapid switch off as prime minister. Lapid and the Haredi parties have long been at loggerheads over the Yesh Atid chief’s support for introducing core curriculum studies into ultra-Orthodox schools and ending blanket exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with fellow MKs during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

While Lapid got significantly more endorsements than Bennett, and his party has 17 seats to Yamina’s seven, he revealed Tuesday that he offered Bennett to serve as prime minister first in a rotation government. In apparent response to Lapid, Bennett said he would not head a left-wing coalition or abandon his principles.

New Hope, which campaigned on replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, has also voiced support for a power-sharing deal between Bennett and Lapid.

But throwing cold water on the idea that the Joint List could support such a coalition from the outside, Joint List chair Ayman Odeh said Thursday night that he would not support a government headed by Bennett.

“We will not agree under any circumstances to support or allow the formation of a government headed by Naftali Bennett,” Odeh told the Arab Radio Nas.

“We will not replace one racist with another racist,” he said.

If Netanyahu does not succeed in forming a government, the president can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government.

Rivlin has indicated he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election, the fifth in under three years.

Neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu bloc currently has a clear path to a coalition majority.

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