Israel Coalition Talks: Lapid Tells President He Has Succeeded in Forming Government

The last-minute announcement paves the way to replacing Netanyahu at the helm after 12 years

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, May 2021.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, May 2021.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid officially informed President Reuven Rivlin that he had been able to form a government – about a half-hour before the Wednesday-midnight deadline. Yamina leader Naftali Bennett will serve as prime minister initially as part of a rotation agreement.

Late into the night, Lapid and Bennett were putting the final touches on their coalition agreement, following Lapid’s signing of pacts with Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar. Afterward, the last agreement was signed between Yamina and Yesh Atid. Earlier in the day, an agreement with Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz was reached. 

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The deal with New Hope had been ready earlier Wednesday, but Sa’ar refused to sign it before Bennett was ready to agree to his pact. The coalition agreement with New Hope calls for Sa’ar to serve as justice minister, Yifat Shasha-Biton as education minister, Yoaz Hendel as communications minister and Zeev Elkin as another minister.  

As reported in Haaretz, Sa’ar’s proposal for splitting the job of attorney general into two will be advanced by the government, subject to expert advice on the matter. A statement from New Hope said it was also agreed to transfer authority on daycare and school for the youngest children to the Education Ministry, and to reform cannabis law, including the decriminalization of marijuana consumption and a complete reorganization of the cannabis market.

Now that Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin have been informed that there is a ready coalition, Levin is expected to formally announce it to the full Knesset on Monday. Under Knesset bylaws and the Basic Law on Government, Levin has up to one week to hold the vote to confirm the new government. During that week, Likud is hoping to step up the pressure and prevent the new government from taking office. 

There is fear in the anti-Netanyahu “change bloc” over the pressure expected to be exerted on Knesset members to change their minds and oppose the new government. The main worry is about Yamina MK Nir Orbach. Initially, Orbach had promised that either he would support the government or resign from the Knesset. But on Wednesday, concerns arose that he would end up voting against the government after all.

A source close to Bennett and Yamina No. 2 Ayelet Shaked said, “Orbach had been considering all this time what to do exactly, but he hasn’t told us that he’s decided (to vote) no.” Nevertheless, on Wednesday Orbach talked with Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the leading religious Zionist rabbis who has fought hard to prevent the change government from being formed.

Leaders the following parties, top left to right: Yesh Atid, Yamina, New Hope, Yisrael Beitenu, Meretz, Kahol Lavan, United Arab List, Labor. Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND THOMAS COEX JACK

Yesh Atid has prepared for a scenario in which one of the Yamina lawmakers decided in the end not to support the government. The party has engaged in quiet talks with Joint List MKs on the matter, in particular Ahmad Tibi. The Hadash and Balad factions inside the Joint List alliance announced that their MKs would oppose the new government, but Ta’al and its leader Tibi made no such announcement.

Beyond the question of what Tibi will demand in exchange for his support, and whether he would agree to it at all, is the question of whether the UAL would countenance being joined by other Arab lawmakers supporting the government, thereby losing its exclusive role in the emerging coalition. Yesh Atid will try to resolve these issues in the coming days

No smaller a worry is that Abbas will change his mind. He, too, will be facing pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until the last minute. Even though Abbas signed a coalition agreement, he could still block the formation of the government if he chooses to vote against it in the Knesset plenum.

Over the course of the day, the change bloc tried to resolve the dispute between Yamina’s Shaked and Labor leader Merav Michaeli over which of them would sit on the Knesset Judicial Appointments Committee. 

Shaked proposed a compromise calling for a rotation of one seat on the panel: During the first two years, as long as Bennett is serving as prime minister, Shaked would be have that seat; in the following two years, when Lapid is prime minister, Michaeli have it. Also, the other members of the committee would be adjusted to ensure a continued balance between left and right.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, December 2020.Credit: YONATAN SINDEL - AFP

Michaeli accepted in principle the idea of rotation, but initially insisted that she be first in the rotation. The first two years of the rotation are regarded as the more critical ones because that is when five new Supreme Court justices are expected to be appointed. Yet the order of rotation it’s not as important as Shaked and Michaeli made it out to be, because of the ideological balance that the committee will maintain.

“My proposal came after I ceded the Justice Ministry in favor of Gideon Sa’ar, who is from the right, and after I agreed to cede the job of interior minister to Ayelet Shaked,” said Michaeli amid the dispute over the panel. “I hope that the right-wing bloc will stop playing musical chairs and form a government.”

As the pressure on Michaeli increased, she finally agreed to study the issue but asked that the final decision be made jointly by her and the party heads in the change bloc. Labor Party sources said Michaeli was ready to concede, but she wanted to “spread the blame.” The heads of the bloc then agreed to concede and that Shaked would be first to sit on the panel in rotation. It appears Labor MK Efrat Rayten will also be on the panel. 

The breakthrough in talks with Abbas occurred two hours before the deadline for forming a government. The UAL chairman agreed to sign an agreement with Lapid that would enable him to declare that he had gotten his party’s support for it. UAL also signed a coalition agreement with Lapid that is supposed to anchor all the agreements within it, but discussions with the party will likely continue in the coming days. 

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas talks to the press after signing on with Lapid-Bennett coalition, June 2, 2021.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

UAL demanded a broad freeze or a full repeal of the Kaminitz Law on illegal construction, as well as extensive powers over Bedouin settlements in the Negev. The discussion on the issues will continue in the coming days.

Leaving the negotiation rooms, Abbas said, “I signed after we reached agreements that provide a solution for issues facing Arab society, and Israeli society, too. It was a difficult decision, but we will work with determination to make sure the effort succeeds.”

It’s not unusual that issues of one kind or another remain unsettled even after parties have declared they have been able to form a coalition. Sources in Likud told Haaretz Wednesday that at the swearing-in of the Netanyahu government there were still loose ends, even after the prime minister informed the president that he could form a government. In fact, the meaning of the coalition agreement is that despite the issues still unsettled, the parties intend to form a government.

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