Move could bring end to Netanyahu era, but PM still fighting

Saying Netanyahu-led effort futile, Bennett opts for unity government with Lapid

Yamina leader portrays move as only alternative to more elections; Netanyahu accuses him of scamming voters and claims right-wing MKs can still defect and torpedo ‘left-wing’ bid

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

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett announced Sunday that he would link up with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to form a coalition, promising a right-leaning unity government that will end over two years of political deadlock and oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after 12 consecutive years in power.

“The elections have proven there is no 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 Netanyahu, in which it seemed he could wind up propping 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 sea 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.

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.

“Instead of a left-wing government we can have a sure-fire right-wing one and without going to elections,” Netanyahu said. He called a three-way rotation of the premiership that he had proposed with Bennett and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar “very unacceptable, unusual, and skewed… but better than a left-wing government.”

In his address, calling Lapid “my friend,” Bennett vowed that a unity government was the best possible option for a country riven by repeated elections and engulfed by internal rifts and a political paralysis that he said had “sabotaged” the nation. He denied that his intended coalition would have a left-wing bent.

“This is a political crisis that is unprecedented worldwide. We can go to fifth elections, sixth, 10th. We can take down the country’s walls… until the house falls on our heads,” Bennett said, standing alone at a podium in a Knesset press room. “Or we can halt this insanity and take responsibility.”

To that end, he said, “I intend to work with all my strength to build a national unity government together with my friend Yair Lapid… to get Israel back on track.”

“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,” he added.

Bennett repeatedly accused Netanyahu and his Likud party of lying and trying to scare his right-wing base.

Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett (L) speaks with Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid in the Knesset plenum, March 11, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We are faced with a well-oiled machine that constantly spreads lies in order to instill fear in the hearts of the public,” Bennett said.

Under the emerging rotation deal between Yamina and Yesh Atid, Bennett will serve as prime minister until September 2023 before handing the reins to Lapid. Joining the coalition will be a mix of right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties that have refused to continue joining governments led by Netanyahu, who is on trial in three criminal cases.

Until Sunday, Yamina had formally still held open the possibility of working with Netanyahu, giving the long-serving prime minister faint hopes of leading the next coalition after March 23’s indecisive elections. But Bennett firmly and repeatedly dismissed the possibility in his Sunday evening remarks, saying that “nobody believes him,” in reference to Netanyahu breaking political promises to other party leaders and wiggling out of a rotation agreement with another rival, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, late last year.

Bennett’s announcement could bring to an end 12 consecutive years of Netanyahu rule. But the prime minister still has a few days to try to thwart a Bennett-Lapid coalition before it can be sworn-in at the Knesset next week. The possibility of lawmakers defecting or absenting themselves, combined with Israel’s fast-shifting current affairs, means uncertainty will prevail until parliamentary approval is secured.

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.

Lapid’s mandate to form a government ends at midnight Wednesday. 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, though the coalition would likely only be voted on and sworn in next week. Likud and other parties opposed to the government are planning on using the intervening time to ratchet up pressure on right-wing MKs in a bid to get them to defect and torpedo the coalition before it is sworn in.

In his own address, Netanyahu attempted to play on the concerns of right-wingers in Yamina and New Hope nervous about working with left-wing Labor and Meretz, calling the diverse alliance a “left-wing government” that is “a danger to the security of Israel and a danger to the future of the state.”

“If it does occur, heaven forbid, think about who will be in the security cabinet: Yair Lapid, [Meretz head] Nitzan Horovitz, [Labor head] Meirav Michaeli, and [Meretz MK] Tamar Zandberg,” he said. “What impact will that have on Israel’s deterrent capability? How will we look to our enemies? What will they say in Iran and Gaza? What will they do in Iran and Gaza? What will they say in the corridors of the administration in Washington?”

“Will Lapid, Zandberg, and company face down Iran?” he asked rhetorically. “They wholeheartedly support that dangerous nuclear agreement. They’ll fight Hamas? They depend on the votes of [Arab MKs Ahmad] Tibi and [Ayman] Odeh. They’ll defend our soldiers in The Hague?… Who’ll protect the settlements…? It’s a joke…”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemns rival Naftali Bennett’s newly declared bid to build a unity government with Yair Lapid that would end his 12 years as prime minister, May 30, 2021. (Screenshot)

As the two rivals gave their separate addresses, hundreds of activists rallied outside the Tel Aviv home of Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked, with competing camps seeking to convince Yamina MKs to rebel and torpedo the plans, or to push ahead with the change bloc government. With the tone of right-wing opposition to the Bennett-Lapid alliance rising, some demonstrators carried signs branding Bennett and Shaked “collaborators” and others held placards proclaiming: “Leftists. Traitors.”

Demonstrators outside the home of Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked hold placards denouncing Yamna’s planned coalition with the centrist Yesh Atid and other parties that would end Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year prime ministership. The sign at bottom left reads: “Leftists. Traitors.” (Flash 90)

Hours earlier, Yamina released a statement saying that the party’s MKs had “backed Bennett’s plans to form a government and prevent fifth elections,” after Bennett updated them on his moves.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli, who has vowed not to join a Lapid coalition, was not in attendance, meaning the decision was backed by six of the seven Yamina lawmakers, including Bennett and Shaked.

In his televised address, Bennett called the decision to form a unity government “the most complicated one in my life,” but said he had made peace with it.

He repeatedly played up the right-wing bona fides of the nascent coalition, which will also include the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party, and asked other factions to join in as well.

Likud supporters and detractors protest outside Ayelet Shaked’s home in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“The truth is that this will be a slightly more right-wing government than the current one,” Bennett said, noting that the left-leaning parties had made difficult compromises.

“The left is making not insignificant concessions — giving me, a former head of the Settlers Council and a man of the Land of Israel, the post of prime minister, and my friend Gideon Sa’ar, a firm right-winger, the post of minister of justice.”

“We have not budged from our values. This is not a government that will disengage [from settlements], will not relinquish land, and also won’t be afraid to carry out military operations when needed. The political context won’t stop us.”

Netanyahu claimed that Bennett had lied to his voters, saying that none of them would have cast votes for him had they known he would join Lapid, and portrayed him as a political opportunist hell-bent on power.

“He doesn’t want elections because he knows he’ll be erased, he won’t cross the threshold,” Netanyahu said. “He only cares about himself. He wants to be prime minister for two years, one is not enough.”

Netanyahu claimed that Knesset members had told him they would defect and help prop up a Netanyahu- and Bennett-led rotation government, if only Bennett would sign on, and urged those MKs to continue opposing the move.

“Don’t cheat the public who supported you, and don’t cheat yourselves… If you’re a right-winger, you don’t vote for a left-wing government. And if you vote for a left-wing government, you are not a right-winger,” he said.

Shortly after the speeches, Yesh Atid announced that talks with Yamina would restart Sunday evening.

Lapid, who currently holds the mandate to form a government, has until Wednesday night to inform President Reuven Rivlin he has succeeded in cobbling together a coalition.

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

The “change bloc,” with six of Yamina’s seven seats, numbers 57 MKs. Ra’am’s four MKs would hand it 61-seat support in the 120-member Knesset, allowing a government to be formed.

Channel 12 reported that should he be ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu has no intention of resigning, and plans to lead the opposition while engaging in attacks against Yamina and intense efforts to break up the coalition along ideological lines.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset, December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu made a last-ditch attempt to pry Bennett and Sa’ar away from Lapid’s bloc, offering to rotate the prime minister’s seat with them if they joined him in a coalition. Sa’ar rejected the offer immediately, and Bennett noted in his address that he had okayed it, but it did not matter.

“Of course I gave my consent. The attempt failed because no one believed that the promises would be kept,” he said.

In this Sunday, November 24, 2019 photo, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP, File)

Netanyahu has been in power since 2009, after an earlier term from 1996 to 1999, but failed to win decisively in four elections since 2019, and his political future has been complicated by his indictment in three criminal cases.

After the first three inconclusive elections, Netanyahu finally convinced Blue and White’s Gantz to join him in a power-sharing government in mid-2020. Netanyahu was to have served as prime minister for 18 months before handing the position over to Gantz in November 2021. However, late last year Likud and Blue and White’s government, dysfunctional since day one, fell apart over Netanyahu’s refusal to pass a two-year budget as had originally been agreed on between the sides.

The government’s collapse and Israel’s subsequent fourth election in two years this past March was widely seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to avoid honoring his deal with Gantz and to cement his hold on power by capitalizing on Israel’s successful vaccination campaign and normalization deals with several Arab countries.

Instead, the election ended with the Knesset mired in much the same gridlock that followed the previous three votes.

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