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Netanyahu: ‘I’ll let Bennett be PM first’; Bennett: ‘But you don’t have a majority’

With just one day remaining for him to form a coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he was ready to step aside as premier and let Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett serve as prime minister first in a rotation agreement — a proposal immediately dismissed by Bennett, who said in response that Netanyahu simply doesn’t have the votes.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Yair Lapid said he expected President Reuven Rivlin to task him with forming a government after Netanyahu’s 28-day period to do so ends Tuesday night, “if nothing surprising happens” before then, but that he would willing to let Bennett serve first as prime minister in any rotation agreement between them.

Speaking in a video message released on his social media accounts, Netanyahu said that in his negotiations with Bennett, “I told him I am willing to accept his demand for a rotation deal in which he will serve first as prime minister for one year. Yamina party members will enter the government and Knesset with important roles.”

“In a post 10 days ago, Bennett wrote that a right-wing government could be formed if I move aside for the first year. So I moved aside. Now it’s your turn,” Netanyahu said in a direct plea to the Yamina chair. “Personal boycotts and personal rivalries within the right must not prevent the formation of a right-wing government.” (Last month, Netanyahu had derided Bennett’s “absurd ambition” and said the idea of the head of a party with just seven seats becoming prime minister was “anti-democratic.”)

Bennett, however, said he had never asked to be prime minister and reiterated his previous pledge to join Netanyahu only if the incumbent can come up with enough Knesset support for a coalition; if not, Bennett said, he would back an alternative government.

“If Netanyahu doesn’t manage to form a government, we will form a unity government,” Bennett insisted, referring to a coalition with centrist, left-wing and right-wing parties. “The most destructive thing for Israel is more elections.”

Netanyahu swiftly responded with an argument he has previously made, saying that if Bennett came aboard, others would follow — making possible a right-wing majority.

However, Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar both made clear again Monday that they were not about to boost Netanyahu’s chances.

Smotrich said he would not compromise on his refusal to serve in a government supported by the Islamist Ra’am party, while Sa’ar said he stood by his pledge not to join a government with Netanyahu — thus effectively leaving the prime minister still with no path to a majority.

In his video message, Netanyahu goaded Bennett to commit to joining a right-wing government, saying that the Yamina leader must allow the formation of a coalition with the Likud party “to prevent a dangerous leftist government” coming to power.

“Sixty-five seats voted for a right-wing government. A huge majority of them voted for me as prime minister — directly on the ballot paper, or indirectly for parties that pledged in advance to sit in a coalition led by me,” Netanyahu said of the March 23 elections.

“For such a government to be formed, Naftali Bennett must stand with us in the right-wing bloc, and not join the left-wing bloc,” the prime minister insisted, referring respectively to the bloc of parties that have said they support Netanyahu and those who have vowed to replace him.

Though Yamina won just seven seats in the March election, Bennett has become a potential kingmaker and even king, having not yet declared who he will back as prime minister. He has repeatedly said that he will support a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu if the prime minister has the votes, but will work toward a unity government without Netanyahu if not.

Responding to Netanyahu’s message in a Yamina party faction meeting at the Knesset, Bennett denied he had demanded to be prime minister, and reiterated his pledge to back the premier if he had the votes.

“I heard Netanyahu’s offer now, but it’s not clear: I didn’t ask for the premiership, but for a government — and this, unfortunately, he doesn’t have, because Smotrich burned the bridges leading to a right-wing government,” Bennett told reporters, referring to the Religious Zionism leader’s abiding refusal to enter a government propped up by Ra’am.

Bennett said he still preferred to form a right-wing government over a coalition with centrist and left-wing parties and is willing “to make compromises” to reach that goal. But he said Netanyahu is seeking to pin his own failure to form a government on Yamina and he refused to commit, per Netanyahu’s ultimatum, to not forming a coalition with the Likud leader’s rivals.

In an apparent boost to Netanyahu, the spiritual head of the far-right Noam faction within Religious Zionism published an open call on Sunday for Netanyahu to form a right-wing coalition with the backing of Ra’am. But a second leading rabbi, Chaim Druckman, on Monday said the opposite, with Smotrich at his side: “Don’t use Ra’am to set up a government.”

And Smotrich reiterated that despite the opinion of some in his party, he would prevent a right-wing government that relies on Ra’am. “I hate to be a killjoy, but I have no intention of quitting,” he also said.

Smotrich said he would “prevent the collapse of Zionism with the establishment of a government that relies on terror supporters who deny our existence as a Jewish state.” If necessary, he said, he would “go into opposition with head held high.”

At the same time, Sa’ar indicated Monday his party would not join a government with Likud and Yamina even if Netanyahu gave Bennett first turn as prime minister, for a year, as part of a rotation agreement.

Netanyahu’s proposal to Bennett “is not what New Hope voters voted for. New Hope voters voted for change,” said Sa’ar at his Knesset faction meeting.

Reports late Sunday and early Monday said Netanyahu had agreed to a plan that would allow Bennett to try and put together a right-wing government, in return for the Yamina chief committing to a series of measures that could help the premier put an end to his ongoing criminal trial.

According to a Walla news report Monday, Netanyahu wants the Yamina leader to commit to giving Likud control over the Justice Ministry and passing a law that would allow the lawmakers to override Supreme Court decisions striking down Knesset legislation.

Both measures could theoretically help Netanyahu in his reported efforts to cancel the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against him and prematurely end his criminal trial. In controlling the Justice Ministry, Netanyahu would be able to appoint a new attorney general when Avichai Mandelblit’s tenure ends in the coming months; and a Supreme Court-override law could allow him to pass legislation against putting a prime minister on trial.

Netanyahu has in the past refused to rule out the possibility of legislation to provide him immunity from conviction, even after his criminal trial has begun. Bennett has repeatedly said he supports reform of the Supreme Court but opposes personally tailored, retroactive legislation.

Both Likud and Yamina denied the Walla report, with Bennett’s party saying “no such things” were discussed between the two leaders.

“There is no such proposal and there is no importance to such proposals for Yamina as long as Netanyahu has no way to form a right-wing government,” the party said in a statement.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is fighting for his political and legal survival after the March 23 elections, as he struggles to form a government while on trial for corruption charges. His official mandate to assemble a coalition expires on Tuesday night, though he can request a 14-day extension from President Reuven Rivlin.

The elections, the fourth since April 2019, ended in gridlock, with Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc again coming short of a ruling majority, in part because three right-wing parties ran with the declared goal of replacing him. Barring an unexpected breakthrough, Netanyahu has no clear way of putting together a ruling coalition.

Rivlin, who as Israel’s president is tasked with mandating a lawmaker to form a government, can either give Netanyahu an extension, hand the mandate to another lawmaker or kick it to the Knesset for a 21-day period, after which fifth elections would automatically be called if no one forms a government.

If Rivlin does task another Knesset member with forming a government, it is widely expected to be either Bennett or Yesh Atid leader Lapid, who have been holding talks together on forming a unity government without Netanyahu.

Speaking at his own Yesh Atid party’s faction meeting after Bennett’s comments, Lapid said Monday that he was unwilling to relinquish the presidential mandate to Bennett and expected to be tasked with forming a government by Rivlin.

“I will not give up the mandate to Bennett. I see the tricks that are being done and I hope the president doesn’t enable it,” Lapid said, apparently referring to Netanyahu’s offer to Bennett of a premiership rotation deal. “We will go with Bennett and try to form a government.”

At the same time, Lapid confirmed he was still willing to let Bennett be first in a premiership rotation deal between the two.

“The foundations are ready. We can form a government. In one more day, if nothing surprising happens, we will be faced with two options: an Israeli national unity government, solid, decent and hard-working. Or fifth elections,” he said.

However, Bennett is said to be facing reluctance from within his own right-wing nationalist party to cooperate with Lapid, and some of his Yamina’s seven lawmakers may not agree to join such a coalition, which would also require the backing of Arab lawmakers. Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked has reportedly been working hard against the prospect of a unity government with the center-left.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, amid the disagreements within Yamina and the latest reports of Bennett’s cooperation with Netanyahu, Yesh Atid told Bennett Monday that negotiations would be put on hold until the Yamina chair publicly declares his support for a unity government without Netanyahu.

Should no government be formed, the country will head to elections, its fifth in two and a half years.

Source: Raoul Wootliff – TOI