Yamina still undecided on joining opposition ahead of vote on key Knesset panel

Rivlin said to consider giving mandate to ‘change bloc’ if Netanyahu fails to form a government, though he’d previously indicated he might not

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett (left) and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party was still considering whether to ally with opposition parties in a Monday vote on the establishment of a key parliamentary panel, according to reports, despite having openly expressed support for a right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arrangements Committee, the first Knesset committee to be formed after an election, controls the legislative agenda in the new parliament until a new government is formed. This includes determining what other parliamentary committees will be formed and who will serve on them.

By allying with the anti-Netanyahu bloc on the makeup of the panel, Yamina would be seeking to hold the tie-breaking vote, thus cementing its power.

According to a proposal put forward by Likud’s Miki Zohar, who has been tapped by Netanyahu to head the committee, both blocs of parties — one backing Netanyahu and one opposing him — would have 10 seats on the panel, with Yamina and Islamist Ra’am each receiving a seat apiece. Both parties have set themselves up as free agents amid the warring blocs.

The proposal put forward by the so-called change bloc would see Netanyahu’s backers with 14 seats compared to 16 for those who oppose him, with Ra’am receiving one seat and Yamina two.

Top political players were preparing to make public statements Monday as the political drama drags on. Netanyahu, Bennett, Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas all said they would speak to the press.

Meanwhile, though President Reuven Rivlin had previously indicated he may not task a second candidate with attempting to form a government should Netanyahu fail, a report Sunday night said the president was reconsidering.

President Reuven Rivlin meets with the Yesh Atid party at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His other option would be to immediately ask the Knesset to try to find an MK who can muster the support of a majority.

Netanyahu, having been tasked by Rivlin with forming a coalition after receiving the most recommendations from Knesset members, has until May 4 to present his government. If he fails to do so, Rivlin could give him an extension or choose someone else, or, as he has signaled, pass the decision to the Knesset.

According to sources in the “change bloc,” the president will reconsider his initial preference to turn to the Knesset if leaders of the parties that have vowed not to sit with Netanyahu can present a viable alternative, Channel 13 reported.

The sources said that they will be able to show Rivlin that the “infrastructure” exists for a rotation government headed by Bennett and Lapid.

Previously, sources in the bloc had told Channel 13 they feared that if Rivlin does not give the opposition a chance and sends the mandate back to the Knesset, it would become impossible to reach a consensus. This is because a candidate who has been given the presidential mandate to form a government can get by with a minority in the 120-seat Knesset, so long as there are not 61 votes against him. This would allow a coalition to be formed through an abstention of an Arab party such as Ra’am. But to form a coalition once the mandate is sent back to the Knesset, a candidate must have the explicit backing of at least 61 MKs — and Bennett’s hard-right party would likely find it hard to stomach basing his coalition on the express support of a party such as the Islamist Ra’am.

According to Kan news, trouble may be brewing in Likud, with Finance Minister Israel Katz telling confidants recently that if Netanyahu fails to form a government, Katz should take over as chairman of the party.

Lapid, whose Yesh Atid is the second-largest party in the Knesset, is also continuing his meetings with leaders of parties that have vowed not to sit in a government with the Likud leader. He met with MKs Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi of the predominantly Arab Joint List on Monday afternoon.

Lapid on Sunday called for the formation of a “unity government” of Zionists and patriots to break the ongoing political logjam and prevent a fifth national election, and signaled to Rivlin that he expects to be given the mandate to build such a government if Netanyahu cannot form a coalition.

“We have to form a government that will unite us. Not a right-wing government, not a left-wing government, but an Israeli unity government,” Lapid said at a press conference held in Tel Aviv.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, during a press conference, April 18, 2021. (Courtesy)

Lapid noted that was recommended as prime minister by 45 MKs, and thus deserves the opportunity to try to build a coalition if Netanyahu fails. “We have 45 recommendations; I will be very surprised if the president does not impose [the task of forming] the next government on me,” he said.

Lapid has said that he has offered Bennett to be prime minister in a rotation agreement between them.

“In this Israeli unity government, there will be three right-wing parties [Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu], two centrist parties [Yesh Atid and Blue and White] and two left-wing parties [Labor and Meretz],” the Yesh Atid leader said Sunday. “That’s what unity looks like. When different people with different opinions decide to work together.”

Such a government would have the support of 58 Knesset members, not a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, but enough to outvote Netanyahu’s bloc of 52 supporters. It could also be supported from the outside by the Joint List or Ra’am.

Other than Yamina, whose party recommended that Bennett be tasked with forming a coalition, all of the other parties mentioned by Lapid recommended that he be tapped with forming the next government. Overall, however, the Yesh Atid leader received fewer recommendations than Netanyahu, who was thus given the first shot at cobbling together a coalition.

Lapid’s efforts to form a coalition come as Netanyahu appears to be struggling to find 61 Knesset members willing to form a Likud-led government.

Head of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich gives a press statement in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, April 4, 2021. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

With Netanyahu lacking a clear majority following the March 23 election, multiple — and mostly improbable — scenarios have been floated on how he could reach the magic number of 61, including relying on outside support from the Islamist party Ra’am, despite opposition from far-right lawmakers including Bezalel Smotrich; trying to recruit “defectors” from other parties; and trying to get the New Hope party headed by Gideon Sa’ar to join such a coalition.

Netanyahu has been said to be trying to convince Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionism party, to accept Ra’am’s support for a one-off vote that would allow the establishment of the government.

But on Sunday, Smotrich said that he would prefer a fifth rapid-fire election or even a center-left coalition backed by either the majority-Arab Joint List or Ra’am parties (in which Smotrich would not take part), rather than a right-wing government backed by Ra’am.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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