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Who will he back as PM? Bennett to meet with Netanyahu, then Lapid

Yamina leader to holds talks with leaders of competing blocs on Friday, Saturday as they scramble to gain enough support to be tasked by president with forming a government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Defense Minister Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Defense Minister Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday to hold negotiations on possibly forming a coalition government, in their first sit-down since last week’s inconclusive elections.

Bennett will meet Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on Saturday night, for the same purpose, Yamina said in a statement Thursday.

Both Netanyahu’s bloc of supporters and the anti-Netanyahu bloc are competing for Yamina’s backing, which is crucial to muster a 61-strong majority in the Knesset. Even with Bennett’s support, both sides are expected to face significant hurdles.

Following the elections, Bennett has been demanding that he become prime minister in a power-sharing deal with either Lapid or Netanyahu, despite his party only having seven Knesset seats. Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in the elections, 30, while Yesh Atid is the second-largest party with 17.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid and his wife Lihi cast their ballots at a voting station in Tel Aviv, in the Knesset elections on March 23, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Lapid met Thursday with leaders of the Joint List party, an alliance of predominantly Arab member parties. The Joint List leaders did not commit to giving him their support and reiterated that they will not consider recommending Lapid unless he receives 55 other MKs’ recommendations.

The meeting was not attended by Balad head Sami Abou Shahadeh, who has said his faction within the Joint List will not recommend anyone for prime minister. The remaining five MKs of the party are widely expected to endorse Lapid for prime minister, but if even he receives the prerequisite 55 recommendations, the Joint List would still only take him to 60 MKs.

That would leave Lapid still needing Yamina’s cooperation to oust Netanyahu, strengthening Bennett’s hand.

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)

Hebrew media reported Thursday that while Bennett has not yet decided who he will recommend to President Reuven Rivlin, he has all but ruled out Lapid and likely will submit his own name, rather than back Netanyahu either.

Gideon Sa’ar, leader of the New Hope party which is also seeking to replace Netanyahu, is reportedly working to broker an alternate coalition that would see Bennett rotate the premiership with Lapid. However, the idea is said to be hampered by disputes over who should actually be tasked with forming the coalition, with both sides skeptical of the other’s commitment to follow through on the power-sharing agreement.

A poll published Wednesday night by Channel 13 News found that 62 percent of those who voted for the anti-Netanyahu bloc want Lapid to step aside and let Bennett be prime minister.

Before the election, both New Hope’s Sa’ar and Bennett said they want to see Netanyahu removed from power, but also vowed not to let Lapid be prime minister.

Also Wednesday, Netanyahu publicly called on Yamina and Sa’ar, a former Likud minister who left to start his own party, to put aside their differences and join him in forming a government. Sa’ar, who has vowed to unseat Netanyahu, immediately rejected the offer but Yamina’s response was ambivalent.

According to a Channel 12 report on Wednesday night, Likud has extended a lavish offer to Yamina in an effort to persuade Bennett’s party to recommend Netanyahu be tapped with forming the next government.

Bennett has previously served as a minister under Netanyahu but following the previous elections joined the opposition.

Rivlin is set to begin consultations with the political parties on Monday to hear their recommendation for who should get the job of forming a government. On Wednesday, he is expected to task a candidate with forming a government.

The elections, the fourth in two years, did not break the ongoing political deadlock.

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Lapid has met with several fellow faction leaders in recent days as part of coalition-building efforts. He has so far been endorsed by Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats), Labor (7) and Meretz (6) to form the next government — for a total of 37 backers.

Benny Gantz said his Blue and White party (8 seats) would “automatically” back Lapid, provided that support would lift him to a 61-strong majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Netanyahu can expect the endorsement of Shas (9), United Torah Judaism (7) and Religious Zionism (6) — 52 seats in all together with Likud’s 30.

Ra’am, with just four seats, could be in a position to tip the scale for either bloc. Lapid has courted Ra’am leader Abbas, who is reportedly leaning toward supporting a Likud government from the outside and is set to make a television announcement on Thursday night.

Collaboration with Ra’am faces strong opposition from within Likud and the Religious Zionist parties, which accuse the party of being anti-Zionist and supporting Palestinian terrorism.

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