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Likud: Bennett wants to be prime minister 'at any price'

With his party’s support, Bennett says he’s heading into government with Lapid

All Yamina MKs but one say they will back leader in joining bloc of parties seeking to oust Netanyahu; unapologetic Bennett insists coalition won’t be leftist

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett told his party’s lawmakers Sunday that he intends to join with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in forming a coalition, a move that, if completed in the next few days, would end more than 12 consecutive years of rule by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At a special faction meeting in Ra’anana, where he lives, Bennett updated Yamina MKs on developments in coalition talks over the past few days and explained to them why he was leading the party into the so-called “change bloc” of parties seeking to oust Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s Likud, in response, accused him of deceiving his voters and seeking to become prime minister at all costs.

With Bennett on board, and indeed set to serve first as prime minister in a tentative rotation agreement between them, Lapid and his improbable mix of anti-Netanyahu partners from across the political spectrum would appear to have enough Knesset support to oust Netanyahu. However, the possibility of lawmakers  defecting or absenting themselves, combined with Israel’s fast-shifting current affairs, means that uncertainty will prevail until the Knesset approves a new government, with a vote on that not expected for several more days. The nascent coalition apparently has the support of 61 MKs in the 120-seat Knesset, so even a single defection could deprive it of a majority.

A statement from the Yamina party said Bennett updated lawmakers on the “events of recent days and his efforts to form a stable and functioning government.”

Yamina said the faction unanimously backed “his efforts to form a government and prevent fifth elections.”

Bennett is set to deliver a televised statement at 8 p.m. Sunday. Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver his own statement at 8:30.

The meeting lasted less than an hour. During the discussion, Bennett admitted it would be easier for him to stay “in familiar territory” — meaning Netanyahu’s bloc of parties — but that to do so would only lead to fifth elections.

“How many times do we have to batter the state [with elections] in order to come to the realization that there can be no right-wing government?” he was quoted as saying by Channel 13 news. “Netanyahu doesn’t have a government — that’s a fact.”

What is taking shape with Lapid “is a national unity government of equal forces, and I don’t apologize,” he reportedly said. “I’m proud of our actions under these difficult circumstances. That’s what we’re about — taking responsibility… Bibi [Netanyahu] offered everything, with one exception: establishing a government.”

He added: “We have red lines and we’ll uphold them. We won’t relinquish territory and we won’t harm the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.”

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 his longtime political partner, Ayelet Shaked.

File: Then-finance minister Yair Lapid (left) and then-economy minister Naftali Bennett at the Manufacturers Association of Israel annual general assembly at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, February 26, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90.)

Despite the statement saying the remaining six lawmakers would all support joining Lapid, MK Nir Orbach indicated in a WhatsApp post that he may resign from the Knesset rather than go along with the move.

Right-wing activists have been lobbying Yamina MKs not to join Lapid, and one wrote a message to Orbach earlier in the day imploring him to vote against such a coalition, Channel 12 reported. Orbach responded, “I won’t vote against. The option to resign exists.”

Though the report included a screen capture of the exchange, it did not say where the text messages were sent. Orbach resigning would not likely affect the potential Bennett-Lapid coalition arithmetic, since he would be replaced by an incoming Yamina MK, Shirley Pinto, who would back Bennett.

Lapid, who currently holds the mandate to form a government, is reportedly planning to visit President Reuven Rivlin on Monday to inform him 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. Ra’am has not definitively committed to backing a Bennett-Lapid coalition.

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.

Lapid’s mandate to form a government ends in three 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.

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.

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 New Hope party leader Gideon 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, with Bennett’s response indicated by his remarks at his faction meeting.

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 1996-9, 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 Benny 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 the same gridlock that followed the previous three votes.

The Likud party responded to Bennett statement Sunday by accusing him of being interested only in becoming prime minister and noted that earlier this month, amid a raging conflict with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, Bennett had declared that he would not form a coalition with Lapid as it would require the support of Ra’am, which opposed Israel’s military campaign.

“Just a week later, even though nothing has changed, Bennett is rushing into a left-wing government under the pretext of preventing elections,” Likud tweeted.

“Now it has become clear that this pretext was just a means to distract the attention of the right,” Likud said and insisted that were Yamina to join Netanyahu’s bloc it would lead to the creation of a right-wing government, suggesting, contrary to Sa’ar’s repeated assertions to the contrary, that New Hope would follow.

“The only consistent thing for Bennett is to deceive his constituents and other right-wing voters, and to throw the ‘principles’ he talked about in the trash, all in order to be prime minister at any price,” the party said.

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