Lapid and Bennett Get Ready for Battle – Not Just Against Netanyahu

Bennett hints of plans to enlist the ultra-Orthodox parties into the fold, while Lapid aims to rack up achievements for the center-left, and Netanyahu seeks to exploit the coming fight for the presidency

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid prepared for a press conference in Tel Aviv, on Thursday.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid prepared for a press conference in Tel Aviv, on Thursday.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The 28-day stopwatch began running on Wednesday for the parties seeking to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after Israeli President Reuven Rivlin awarded Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid a mandate to form a government and rescue Israel from the political mire of the last two years. Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett are now determined to do whatever it takes to enable them, each in his own turn, to fulfill their dreams of being prime minister.

To get there they will need to close the yawning gaps separating the left and right, to create a functioning government and stay in office until 2025, when they can go to the voters with a record of achievement and the popularity that comes with it.

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Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, will do everything he can over the next weeks to undermine the coalition talks, corner Bennett’s Yamina from all angles, and lead Israel into a fifth round of elections in another three months.

All the sides have long and complicated to-do lists over the coming days. Here are their main tasks.   

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, earlier this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

1. Compressed time frame: Bennett’s main goal is to decide in the next few days about whether he is willing and able to for a government of "change.” Every day that passes will increase the pressure being exerted by Netanyahu and the right, making it harder for Bennett to keep his party whole and justify hooking up with left-wing partners. If everything depended on Bennett, a new government will be formed long before Lapid’s mandate expires. 

2. Preserving Yamina unity: Amichai Chikli is the first of the party’s MKs that could defect from the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Although Chikli said he would support his leader earlier this week, he slammed the door firmly shut on the prospect of a unity government in a scathing letter on Tuesday, expressing opposition to sitting with the left. On Wednesday morning, he doubled down.

For now, Yamina is not on the verge of breakup, but it would be enough for another MK from either Yamina or Gideon Sa'ar’s New Hope to break ranks to risk the Bennett-Lapid government’s ability to win the confidence of the Knesset and become a stable, lasting coalition.

3. Preparing public opinion: On this account, Bennett has a complicated, two-pronged task – to win the hearts of the right and the left in support a coalition and to dispel their mutual distrust. His speech Wednesday night marked the start of that process by appealing to his voters, as well as the leaders of the left, to unite into one governing group.

4. To enlist the ultra-Orthodox and buttress support for the government: Bennett has signaled plans to recruit more parties to the coalition from the right. In the Knesset, this is presumed to mean he wants to bring in the ultra—Orthodox parties – not now but sometime in the next several months. Officially, United Torah Judaism and Shas remain loyal to Netanyahu, but behind the scenes, they haven’t written off the option of eventually joining the change coalition. A source at one of the parties told Haaretz, “The Lapid-Bennett-Lieberman government will need to pass laws on the draft and conversion reform without us, and then we’ll be able to join it.”

Benjamin Netanyahu

Lapid and Bennett arriving at the President's Residence, yesterday Credit: Emil Salman

1. Thwart coalition talks and break up Yamina: Netanyahu isn’t wasting any time. Just a few hours after Lapid was awarded the mandate, Netanyahu addressed the public with a clear message: To undermine the opposition bloc's negotiations, to find other doubting MKs like Chikli and to undercut Bennett’s support among his constituents. While sabotaging the Bennett-Lapid talks wouldn’t give Netanyahu a second chance of forming a government, it would lead to a fifth election and enable him to remain caretaker prime minister in the interim. A new election would put Bennett, Sa'ar, Lapid and Gantz in an awkward spot and create all kinds of new possibilities for Netanyahu.

2. Create an effective opposition: If his efforts to undermine the change coalition fail, Netanyahu is expected to lead a fighting opposition that will challenge Bennett, Sa'ar and their parties day in and day out and embarrass them in front of their rightist voters wherever the opportunity arises. The campaign has already begun: Likud MK Miki Zohar, while chairing the coalition, tried to wreak havoc on Wednesday by bringing to vote in the Knesset Arrangements Committee a clutch of bills favored by the right.

Bennett and Sa'ar, not yet subordinate to any coalition agreement, chose to vote in favor of advancing the legislation, but if the day comes they are ministers in the government they will be forced to vote against legislation that would, for example, allow the Knesset to vote to override a High Court ruling, annex West Bank territory and alter the status of the Supreme Court and State Prosecutor. All these are bills sitting in Knesset.

3. The battle for the presidency: The Knesset has nearly forgotten that a vote for the presidency must take place in a little more than a month. In fact, the law requires that within two weeks the Knesset speaker sets an exact date for the vote. MKs vote by secret ballot, which means that candidates can negotiate cross-party deals. Will Netanyahu vie for the post in order to gain immunity, though there is a legal dispute over the effectiveness of such a move. Alternatively, will the incumbent prime minister promote a dependable candidate to improve his chances of getting the mandate after a fifth election and getting pardoned from the criminal charges?

Yair Lapid

Netanyahu speaking at the KnessetCredit: Noam Moskowitz

1. Rack up achievements for the center-left: The parties of the left will be content with crumbs. Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz and Kahol Lavan made a decision in principle to do whatever it takes to form a coalition. They understand that Bennett is seeking a “soft right” kind of government. They know that he will insist on Yamina and New Hope getting the “ideological” ministries, among them Justice, Education and the Interior. They have also accepted that many of the issues central to their agenda won’t be advanced by such a fragile coalition. But they are counting on Lapid to win them good portfolios and a coalition agreement whose policy terms they can live with.

One of the interesting questions is whether the unity government will be able to advance legislation for the LGBTQ community. One left-wing MK said he believed this is possible. As he sees it, the coalition won’t support laws recognizing same-sex partnerships, but it will advance legislation that doesn’t impinge on the religious establishment, such as a law banning conversion therapy, which could even become flagship legislation.

2. Turning a government of paralysis into a government of action: One of the questions occupying Lapid is how to make the next government into a government of action. “The coalition platform will be vague. It’s clear we won’t be able to advance controversial political issues nor matters relating to religion and state that would encourage the opposition. The question is what is there that we can do,” said a Yesh Atid source. “Everyone is hard at work building mechanisms and looking for topics we think we can advance and win our public’s favor.”

3. Gaining control of the Knesset: Lapid is expected to take an aggressive line in the next few days in an attempt to create facts on the ground, silence Netanyahu’s centers of power and bring about legislative achievements. The Arrangements Committee, which is responsible for Knesset legislation until a new government is formed, will soon change hands, with Yesh Atid’s Karin Elharrar replacing Likud's Miki Zohar.

The changing of the guard in the Arrangements Committee will put an end to the legislative drive that Zohar had started on, first and foremost direct elections for prime minister, which Netanyahu assumes he would win them. At the same time, Yesh Atid, Yamina and New Hope will examine the possibility of replacing Yariv Levin as Knesset speaker, thereby gaining control of the parliamentary agenda. Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid and Ze'ev Elkin of New Hope are the likely candidates for the job. One option being considered is to rotate the post between them after the government is formed.