Opposition to back Bennett getting mandate as only way to prevent 5th vote — TV

Report says so-called ‘change bloc’ fears return of mandate to Knesset will prevent it from forming government; PM said offering Sa’ar top positions to defect

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a government by the end of his allotted mandate period, the so-called change bloc of opposition parties will seek to persuade President Reuven Rivlin to give the mandate to Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, Channel 13 reported on Friday.

Sources in the bloc, who have vowed not to join forces with Netanyahu, told the network they feared that if Rivlin does not give the opposition a chance and sends the mandate back to the Knesset, it will become impossible to reach a consensus.

This is because a candidate who has been given the presidential mandate to form a government can get by with a minority in the 120-seat Knesset, so long as there are not 61 votes against him. This would allow a coalition to be formed through an abstention of an Arab party such as Ra’am. But to form a coalition once the mandate is sent back to the Knesset, a candidate must have the explicit backing of at least 61 MKs — and Bennett’s hard-right party would likely find it hard to stomach basing his coalition on the express support of a party such as the Islamist Ra’am.

It was not clear from the report if the plan to back Bennett was unanimous among the varied parties that have vowed not to sit with Netanyahu. Bennett, who has just seven seats, has placed himself in the kingmaker position, indicating he will sit with either side in an effort to avert a fifth election in two years. However, even with Yamina’s support, neither side has a clear majority, and would likely need at least tacit backing from Ra’am.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has just returned from the US where he held talks with political advisers, intends to soon call a press conference in which he will make the case for a broad government of change. Yesh Atid is the largest party in the bloc.

The report said that Lapid intends to highlight that it would be a government of national unity, including right-wing parties like Yamina, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Gideon Sa’ar’s New hope, along with the centrist Yesh Atid, Benny Gant’s Blue and White, and the leftist Labor and Meretz.

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

The report did not say if he would demand to lead the bloc or support Bennett. Previous reports have said that Lapid has offered Bennett to go first in a rotation agreement.

The reports come with Netanyahu struggling to form a government.

If Netanyahu does not succeed by May 4 and Rivlin does not grant him an extension, the latter 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 that he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset. He also appears unlikely to grant an extension to Netanyahu before doing so.

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.

Reuven Rivlin announces his decision to name Benjamin Netanyahu to try to form a government on April 6, 2021. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

With Netanyahu lacking a clear majority following the March 23 election, multiple — and mostly improbable — scenarios have been floated on how to reach the magic number of 61, including relying on outside support from the Islamist Ra’am, despite opposition from far-right lawmakers including Bezalel Smotrich; trying to recruit “defectors” from other parties; and trying to get the New Hope party to join such a coalition.

Earlier Friday, he called upon Sa’ar, a longtime political rival, to join a coalition with Likud in order to allow the formation of a right-wing government.

“This is your home, you will be welcomed with open arms,” Netanyahu wrote to Sa’ar.

Sa’ar, a former Likud minister, campaigned on a pledge not to join a government led by the incumbent prime minister and has so far rebuffed Netanyahu’s appeals to scrap the promise.

“Likud is your home. You grew up in this home. This is not the time to form a left-wing government,” Netanyahu said in his appeal to the New Hope leader.

Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu was now willing to offer Sa’ar several lucrative posts for his party, including deputy prime minister and Knesset speaker.

The report said that Netanyahu had resisted doing so until now because he feared it would be perceived as rewarding challenges from within the Likud, but now recognized he had no choice.

A composite image shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Gideon Sa’ar, right. (Flash90)

According to Channel 12, Sa’ar responded with skepticism to the “open arms” offer, saying: “You have to open your arms before you strangle somebody.”

Netanyahu also urged Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and Religious Zionism head Smotrich to “put all considerations aside” and “establish the right-wing and national government Israel so desperately needs.”

Both TV networks said Netanyahu, fearing that Bennett would be tempted to head a change bloc government, has been trying to get him to pledge to either go with Netanyahu or new elections. Bennett has refused.

Bennett has said he prefers a right-wing government, but would not go to a new vote if possible.

Even with Bennett and Smotrich, Netanyahu would still be two Knesset seats short of a majority in parliament. He would thus need support either from someone like Sa’ar (an improbable scenario) or the tacit backing of the Islamist Ra’am party from outside the coalition — a move Ra’am has indicated it would be amenable to, in return for clear gains for its constituents.

But Religious Zionism has repeatedly ruled out the latter scenario, and Smotrich reiterated on Friday his rejection of Ra’am, saying that he “will not give in to the suicide of the right” that would establish a government “dependant on anti-Zionist terrorism supporters, and make us all hostages.”

He also said that “if Likud fails to form a national government, it will be because [Netanyahu] has wasted the precious days of his mandate heading in dangerous and utterly hopeless directions.”

Channel 13 said Netanyahu was trying to convince Smotrich to accept Ra’am’s support for a one-off vote that would allow the establishment of the government, but this appeared unlikely given Smotrich’s strong views on the issue.

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