Anti-Netanyahu Bloc Begins Navigating Around Controversies to Form Unity Government

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Yamina leader Naftali Bennett arrives at the president's residence, Wednesday.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett arrives at the president's residence, Wednesday.Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Knesset members from Labor and Meretz probably never imagined they would one day hope that Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett could form a government. The ideological, diplomatic and religious divides among the parties are unbridgeable.

A government is being quietly constructed at this very moment. Bennett is meeting with Labor leader Merav Michaeli on Friday afternoon to conduct negotiations, and earlier that morning he met with New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. But for a few weeks now, both the right and left have been running a number of possible scenarios that could torpedo that coalition.

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How, for instance, would this government respond if U.S. President Joe Biden pushed for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians? What would happen in Bennett, as prime minister, launched a major military operation in the Gaza Strip in response to terror attacks or rocket fire? Will the government fund settlement construction or evacuate the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar?

“There are infinite problematic scenarios,” a senior member of the bloc opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted. “But if we approach the issue with a negative attitude, it won’t work. The whole idea is to work together, not to sabotage each other.”

Sources on both sides have spoken in recent days about changing their approach. “Unlike the Gantz-Netanyahu government, which busied itself with attempts to sabotage each other’s actions, our emerging government will be formed when everyone wants it to succeed,” a Yamina source said. “There will be clear mechanisms for reaching compromises when disagreements arise. The rules of the game will be clear.”

Those mechanisms – which are supposed to rescue the government in times of crisis – have not yet been worked out, but a few basic understandings have been reached to prepare for cooperation. The first is that any coalition agreement will be very sparse, and have nothing to say about three controversial subjects: Israel’s defense policy, justice system reform and matters of religion and state.

In addition, Bennett and Lapid, who will serve as prime ministers in a rotation agreement, will both have the power to veto controversial measures. “The most effective mechanism is the mutual veto,” one left-wing MK said. “This is the only mechanism that proved itself in the Gantz-Netanyahu government. The outgoing government was one big monster of suspicion. Here, at least for now, everyone is coming in with goodwill, which may make it easier to reach compromises.”

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid arrives at the president's residence, Wednesday.Credit: Emil Salman

Aside from economic issues and rehabilitating the Israeli economy following the coronavirus crisis, there are plenty of other issues that the parties can agree on. “We’ll pass a state budget, after three years” without one, a source involved in the negotiations said.

Labor and Meretz think they will also be able to advance LGBTQ issues. It might not be possible to institute some form of civil marriage for same-sex couples, one MK said, but there’s no reason why it should be impossible to advance legislation banning conversion therapy or allowing gay couples access to surrogacy.

The center-left parties are trapped. They have no option but to agree to a Bennett-Lapid government None of them want to be seen as the one who thwarted the possibility of ousting Netanyahu and forced Israel into a fifth election. Their price won’t be high, and they’ll agree to major concession on both the ministerial portfolios they receive and the government’s guiding principles. “We can’t take humiliating portfolios,” said one of the bloc’s MKs. “But if we get operative portfolios that suit our parties and the guiding principles are vague enough, we can manage.”

Earlier this week, Bennett urged other rightist parties to join the emerging government as well. He was thought to be appealing primarily to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which might join a few months after the government passes new laws on drafting yeshiva students and reforming the conversion system. For Bennett, this would make it much easier to sell the government to his own voters. The left-wing parties, though, are insisting on parity mechanisms to ensure that bringing in additional parties doesn’t dilute their own power.

Because Lapid will eventually prime minister in the rotation, likely after two years of Bennett’s leadership, the center-left parties will have an incentive not to dismantle the government before he takes over. “It’ll be in Bennett’s interest to hold on to his first two years as prime minister, to show his achievements and entrench his position,” said a source involved in the conversations between the two sides. “If we can manage to hold out for two years, it seems like it’ll be a coalition that will know how to last a whole term.”

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