Israel Election Results: Lapid in Talks With Bennett, but Fears a Last-minute Escape Into Netanyahu's Arms

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Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid on election night, last week.
Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid on election night, last week. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yair Lapid, who heads the largest party in the bloc opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has held talks with Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett, fears that Bennett will ultimately join a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Eight days after the March 23 election, the anti-Netanyahu bloc is still unable to agree on arrangements that would let it assume power. Yesh Atid's Lapid is trying to secure more votes than Netanyahu of lawmakers who would recommend him to the president to form the next government, but New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar is convinced that replacing Netanyahu won’t be possible unless Yamina head Bennett is the bloc’s candidate for prime minister.

To vote in a new government, a prime ministerial candidate must ensure the support of at least 61 out of 120 Knesset members, but there's no minimum number of endorsements needed for the president to task a candidate with forming one.

Lapid and other leaders of the anti-Netanyahu bloc fear that Bennett will eventually opt to join a rightist government led by Netanyahu, given the enticing offer Netanyahu has made to the Yamina party chairman and his number two, Ayelet Shaked.

“I’m afraid that Bennett is creating a facade of holding negotiations with the 'pro-change bloc' to extort greater gains from Netanyahu,” one member of the bloc said. “Bennett has no real intention of joining us.”

Yamina head Naftali Bennett, last week. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Nevertheless, Lapid is willing to negotiate with Bennett regarding who will head the anti-Netanyahu bloc, but first wants Bennett to prove the seriousness of its intentions by recommending him to the president as most the suitable candidate to form a coalition.

Bennett is set to meet with Netanyahu on Friday and with Lapid on Saturday night.   

Members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc are concerned because, one of them said, they still don't see a plan for forming a government and are stuck in a holding pattern. "Currently, two events are expected to affect negotiations: Mansour Abbas's speech [Thursday], which will let us know where he is headed … [and] the Bennett-Lapid meeting, after which we will know if it is even feasible to form a government together," said one member of the bloc.

By law, even if President Reuven Rivlin tasks Lapid with forming the next government, Bennett could be the person who heads it. Lapid wants Bennett to endorse him for prime minister and says the two will later negotiate who will head the coalition and whether a rotating premiership will take place.

Lapid is “the only member of our bloc that can obtain the mandate [to form a government],” A Yesh Atid source said. “If the parties in the bloc don’t recommend Lapid, they’re effectively recommending Netanyahu, and then the balance of power will shift to him.”

Aside from the fact that Yesh Atid is the largest party in the bloc, with 17 Knesset seats to Yamina’s seven, it has the potential to win support from parties to its left that most likely wouldn’t back Bennett’s rightist party.

So far, Lapid has 30 Knesset members willing to support him for prime minister. If all the parties in the bloc did so, he would have the backing of 57 lawmakers, more than the 52 who have so far declared loyalty for Netanyahu. However, if Bennett rallies behind Netanyahu, the prime minister would have the support of 59 lawmakers.  

But four anti-Netanyahu parties – Labor, Kahol Lavan, New Hope and the Joint List – still haven’t promised to support Lapid. Bennett's Yamina and the United Arab List are negotiating with both sides and haven’t yet made a decision.

A Twitter spat that erupted over the last day between Lapid on one side and Bennett and Sa’ar on the other demonstrates the distrust and lack of coordination among the parties that are ostensibly interested in replacing Netanyahu. 

A Yamina source said Bennett and Lapid haven’t spoken at all over the last few days, but other sources said that talks by lower-level officials are taking place constantly. “Nothing is really managed through Twitter,” one source said.

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