Yamina MK seems to signal he won’t rebel, but hope of quick gov’t approval fades

After meeting Bennett, wavering legislator Nir Orbach appears to reject calls to vote against coalition; parties reject Joint List’s support for quickly replacing Knesset speaker

Yamina MK Nir Orbach. (Flash90/File)
Yamina MK Nir Orbach. (Flash90/File)

A wavering Yamina lawmaker appeared to signal Thursday that he would not break with his party leader Naftali Bennett by opposing the potential “change government.” Still, with a Knesset vote to approve the coalition likely 12 days away, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepping up efforts to break up the so-called change bloc, the new government is far from secure.

With only a 61-59 majority in the 120-seat Knesset, a change of heart from MK Nir Orbach or any other MK in the new coalition could doom its chances of getting approved in parliament.

Orbach met with Bennett a day after Yamina, Yesh Atid, and six other parties agreed to assemble a unity government that would replace Netanyahu as premier.

Orbach has long voiced reluctance to back the coalition, but had previously vowed to resign from the Knesset rather than actively vote against the bloc. However, on Wednesday he began weighing the second option. On Thursday, he withdrew his signature from a petition by the change bloc to quickly replace Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, apparently scuppering that bid.

Minutes after his meeting with Bennett — the second between the two since the coalition deal was announced late Wednesday — Orbach tweeted that he was with Bennett and would do “everything” to ensure the Yamina leader’s efforts to facilitate the country’s success in the long-term.

“I have no intention of holding talks with those who didn’t make any effort over the last two months to form a right-wing government,” he said, seemingly signaling he would not heed calls from Netanyahu and others to vote against the proposed government.

Orbach did not address the effort to replace Levin as Knesset speaker, but Hebrew media reports indicated that there was no shift in his position on that.

On Thursday morning, the change bloc parties submitted 61 signatures, demanding a vote on a new Knesset speaker early next week. The move was intended to prevent Levin from stalling on a vote of confidence in the new government and to ensure that it happened next week, rather than the week after that.

Joint List MKs visit the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 10, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Orbach’s signature had apparently been given to his party’s leaders some time ago. However, on Thursday he quickly moved to withdraw his support. The Arab majority Joint List, which is not part of the coalition, then moved to prop up the effort by adding its own six votes to the bid.

But bloc leaders Yamina and Yesh Atid quickly distanced themselves from the Joint List’s backing, saying it had not been sought. Though Islamist party Ra’am is part of the new coalition, the Joint List is seen as less palatable to many right-wing members of the change bloc.

Yamina then said it would only vote to replace the Knesset speaker once the government itself was approved.

As Knesset speaker, Levin can legally delay a vote on the new government for a week or more, giving Netanyahu’s Likud party more time to try to peel away rebels from the right-wing factions of the unity coalition.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum, October 21, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Netanyahu retweeted posts from Likud’s Twitter account lashing Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid over the Joint List’s support for replacing Levin, claiming it proved they were all in cahoots.

“Less than 24 hours passed and already Lapid and Bennett are relying on the Joint List,” Netanyahu charged. “They will do this every day, every vote.”

He also claimed that if the right-wing New Hope party did not pull its support for replacing Levin, “it will be clear to everyone that you also made a deal with the Joint List as an inseparable part of your government.”

Thursday’s bid to vote in a new Knesset speaker underlined fears in Lapid’s nascent coalition that Knesset members will get cold feet before the government is sworn in.

The so-called change coalition is made from a wide array of parties from the left to the pro-settlement right, and includes Ra’am. It will be led by Bennett as prime minister for two years, before Lapid takes over for the remainder of the term.

Party leaders in the emerging coalition: This combination of pictures created on June 2, 2021, shows (Top (L to R) Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, (bottom L to R) Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, and Labor leader Merav Michaeli. (AFP)

Netanyahu and his political allies have been pressing lawmakers in Yamina and New Hope not to form a government with Lapid, and that pressure is expected to increase.

If the emerging government is sworn in, Israel will have a new prime minister for the first time since 2009. Along with the over 12 consecutive years he has served as premier since then, Netanyahu was also prime minister for three years in the late 1990s.

Under the emerging coalition agreements, Lapid will serve as foreign minister in the first two years of the government, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will remain defense minister, and the treasury will be held by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman. New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar will be justice minister, while Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked will be interior minister. Labor’s Merav Michaeli received the transportation portfolio and her fellow party member Omer Barlev will be public security minister. Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz will be appointed health minister, while fellow party member Tamar Zandberg will be environmental protection minister, and Issawi Frej, regional cooperation minister.

The final coalition agreements have yet to be formally released and negotiations are expected to continue until the swearing-in.

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