Police said investigating threats against Bennett on social media

Security bolstered around Yamina leader ahead of expected announcement he’ll form government with Lapid; incitement probe said opened over doctored photos online

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police are investigating online threats against Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, following reports suggesting he will announce Sunday that he is forming a government with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

The probe was opened after images were shared on social media of Bennett in an Arab headdress with the caption “The liar,” according to Hebrew media reports on Saturday.

A similar image of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin circulated in the run-up to his assassination by a far-right Jewish extremist in 1995.

Also Saturday, Bennett received additional security detail, in anticipation of his political announcement this week, which could see him appointed Israel’s next prime minister if he garners enough votes.

The Israeli political system was on edge Saturday night amid swirling reports that the Yamina party was preparing to announce its backing for the formation of a government that will see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed from power.

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 party leader Bennett to join a power-sharing government led by Bennett and Yesh Atid chief Lapid, who will rotate the premiership between them.

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 Islamist Arab Ra’am party (apparently from outside the coalition), in a unity government that would seek to extract Israel from two years of political chaos, spearhead the country’s recovery from coronavirus and heal societal rifts in a deeply divided nation.

Media reports differed on whether Bennett has already made a final decision, or is on the verge of doing so.

Left to right: Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (Miriam Alster/Flash90); Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett; and New Hope party head Gideon Sa’ar (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 12 and Kan news said Bennett has resolved to join with Lapid. It said 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.

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.

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 its leader Gideon Sa’ar — who has vowed not to partner with the premier — 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.

Yamina put out a laconic statement Saturday night that it would hold a faction meeting Sunday during which Bennett would update the party’s lawmakers on “the developments in recent days.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a public statement on May 21, 2021 (screengrab)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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