Far-right Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett has announced support for the formation of a unity government with centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
Lapid was tasked by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with building a viable coalition on 5 May, after Caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed in his own efforts to do so.
Israel has held 4 elections since April 2019 that ended with no clear winner, leaving Netanyahu and his rivals short of a parliamentary majority.
By law, Lapid has until midnight on Wednesday to put together Israel’s next government. Inability to do so would see the mandate returned to the Knesset and rendering another election all but inevitable.
Lapid’s chances of success have rested largely with Bennett, whose party’s 7 seats in the 120-member parliament granted him the status of kingmaker.
Under a prospective power-sharing deal, Bennett would first serve as Israeli Premier, after which he would be replaced by Lapid in a rotation agreement.
Saying he was joining forces with his political opponents to save the country from political disaster, the standard-bearer of Israel’s religious-right said in a televised address that he intends to “act with all of my power to establish a national unity government together with my friend, Yair Lapid, so that – with God’s help – together we will salvage the state from this shakiness and return Israel to its path.”
Charging that it is “a complete lie” that “a right-wing government exists just around the corner” under Netanyahu’s leadership,” Bennett insisted, “It is either fifth elections or a unity government. Don’t let anyone tell you fairytales.”
“Over the past two-and-a-half years, the State of Israel has been in a state of shakiness” with “another election campaign and another,” he said, pointing to “strife” and the incapacity for leaders to govern. “2,000 years ago we lost a Jewish state here because of internal quarrels. This will not happen again – not on my watch,” he said.
Bennett has held a long and often rocky relationship with Netanyahu. First working as a senior aide to the then-opposition leader 2006 to 2008, before reportedly leaving on bad terms, he later entered national politics in 2013 as the head of a rightwing faction – serving in successive Netanyahu administrations as Defense Minister 2019-20 and the Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Economy and Education between 2013 and 2019.
“Look, Mister Netanyahu is not trying to form a right-wing government, because he knows full well that it doesn’t exist,” asserted Bennett, adding, “He wants to take together with him the national bloc in its entirety, the entire nation, to his personal Masada. At a crucial moment as this one we must take responsibility.
An agreement between Bennett, 49, and Lapid, 57, had already been reported to be close when the Operation Guardian of the Walls conflict with Gaza terrorists erupted on 10 May, during which the two leaders suspended their discussions. The fighting ended with a ceasefire after 11 days.
The new government would also likely include the centrist Blue and White party led by current Defense Minister Benny Gantz with 8 mandates, Gideaon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Avigdor Liberman‘s Yisrael Beitenu – with a combined 20 mandates, and the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties which secured 7 and 6 mandates, respectively. And while Netanyahu’s intention to secure a necessary majority by means of the United Arab List, which holds 4 seats, was blocked by the ultra-right Religious Zionist Party; the Islamist faction is keen on supporting any government that is willing to grant it desirable Parliamentary Commissions in exchange for a so-called blocking-majority – which practically means it would block any attempt to dissolve a minority government.
Members of such a diverse coalition would have little in common apart from the desire to end the 12-year run of Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, who is now on trial over corruption charges that he denies. The alliance is likely to be fragile and the Arab members of parliament oppose much of Bennett’s agenda – which advocates more settlement expansion and the partial annexation of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).
During his speech, Bennett acknowledged that all members of the new coalition would have to compromise on ideological matters.
“Yair and I are divided on a number of core issues – but we are partners in our love for the State and our willingness to act for it. Yair showed leadership and generosity during this difficult time-period ,and I will be glad to lead together with him and Gideon Sa’ar, alongside all of the good other partners, to lead the State. Yes, together,” he said, stressing that, “A government as such will succeed only if we work together as a group. Not I, but we. We will return this togetherness that served as the secret weapon of Israel since its establishment. All of the parties are invited to enter the government.”
Bennett closed his remarks by saying, “This is the most complicated decision which I have taken in my life, however, I am wholehearted with it. Ultimately, I pray to (God) the Holy One Who Is to be blessed, the prayer of Solomon: ‘Therefore give to your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil.’” (1 Kings 3:9)
The formation of the right-wing, centrist and leftist government would hail the end of a political era by handing Netanyahu his first election defeat since 1999.
“I heard Naftali Bennett. To my regret, he once again misleads the public,” asserted the 71-year-old leader in a televised response. Citing past public promises Bennett made not to join up with Lapid, Netanyahu accused him of perpetrating “the fraud of the century.”
“Such a government is a danger to the security of Israel and a danger to the future of the state,” insisted Netanyahu, arguing, “Just think for a moment, what will it do to Israeli deterrence? How will we be viewed by our enemies? What will they say in Iran? What will they say in Gaza? What will they do in Iran and in Gaza? What will they say in the hallways of the Administration in Washington?”
Asserting, “Instead of establishing a left-wing government that is dangerous to the state of Israel, immediately with the termination of Lapid’s mandate,” Netanyahu maintained that it is not too late to “establish a good right-wing government for the State of Israel.”
In eleventh-hour efforts toward that end, Netanyahu made a 3-way counter-offer last night to Bennett and former Likud party stalwart Gideon Sa’ar: under which the New Hope leader would first serve as premier for 15 months, followed by his own return to the helm for 2 two years, followed by Bennett for the remainder of the government’s term.
Sa’ar quickly rejected the offer.
Netanyahu’s rivals have cited his corruption cases as a main reason why Israel needs a new leader, believing that he could use a new term to legislate immunity to shield himself.
Bennett, Israel’s likely next prime minister, is a modern-Orthodox religious Jew who was born to in Haifa to American immigrants from San Francisco. He speaks speaks fluent English, and has lived at various locations in North America throughout his life.
Bennett married his dessert chef wife Gilat in 1999. They and their four children in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana. His eldest son was named after Netanyahu’s brother, Yoni, who is regarded as a national hero after losing his life while leading the 1976 Israeli raid to free hijacked passengers at Uganda’s Entebbe airport.
Bennett reached the rank of Major in the IDF, where he served in the Sayeret Matkal and Maglan special forces units and participated in many combat operations. Post-army, he graduated with a law degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a self-made millionaire, who founded and eventually sold his Cyota anti-fraud software company to the US security firm RSA for $145 million in 2005.
An advocate of liberalizing the economy, Bennett has voiced support for cutting government red tape and taxes. Unlike some of his former allies on the religious-right, Bennett is also comparatively liberal on issues such as gay rights, as well as the relationship between religion and state in a country where Orthodox rabbis wield strong influence.
Palestinians are expected to regard Bennett’s elevation to Israeli Premier as head of a so-called government of “change” as a blow to hopes of a Two-State solution, despite the inclusion of left-wing and centrist parties with parliamentary backing from Arab legislators.
A Palestine Liberation Organization official cited by Reuters dismissed prospective government led by Bennett would be “extreme rightist” and no different than administrations headed by Netanyahu.