Yair Lapid given mandate to form government in Israel
May 8, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
On Tuesday May 4, incumbent Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s 28-day mandate to form a government, given to him by President Reuven Rivlin after the inconclusive election on March 23, expired, with Netanyahu telling Rivlin he had not succeeded. The following day, Rivlin handed a new 28-day mandate to Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, to try to form a governing coalition. Israel has not had a stable majority government since late 2018, and reports make it clear that Lapid is seeking a coalition which would unite ideologically diverse parties that oppose Netanyahu remaining as Prime Minister. Lapid will also possibly offer the premiership initially to Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party, rather than taking the top job himself, in order to create this alliance. This Update look at the prospects for such a “change” coalition, as it is being described in Israel.
We lead with a BICOM backgrounder setting out exactly what has happened, who is saying what about it, and what might happen now. It explains Rivlin’s thinking in giving Lapid a mandate, the crucial role of Naftali Bennett in any coalition, the need to seek support from one or more Arab-dominated anti-Zionist parties to create a government, and what a “change” government’s policy priorities might be. It also provides a brief history of Lapid’s political career. For all the basic facts you need to understand Israel’s current political situation, CLICK HERE.
Next up is veteran Washington Institute analyst David Makovsky. He explains why Netanyahu failed to form a government and the weaknesses of a potential “change” government, but also discusses some possible strengths. He also looks at some international implications of such a government, in terms of the Biden Administration in Washington, but also more broadly. For Makovsky’s full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Gill Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post discusses ten challenges a Lapid-Bennett “change” government would have to overcome to gain power and then hold on to it. Very broad ideological diversity in any potential governing coalition underlies some of them, but there are others equally important. These include the usual problems with dividing power and splitting portfolios, but other more specific ones – like ameliorating any fallout from some of Bennett’s more extreme statements in the past, as well as managing Lapid’s poor relations with Israel’s religious parties. For all ten in more detail, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A Jerusalem Post editorial calling for a unity government between Lapid and Bennett.
- Some analyses of the implications of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision last week to postpone planned Palestinian elections indefinitely – from Palestinian Affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh, from security report Yaakov Lappin, and from BICOM.
- Some evidence that recent violence in Jerusalem has been stoked by incitement from the Palestinian Authority. Plus more incendiary justifications for terrorist violence from the PA’s ruling Fatah party – here and here.
- Two good pieces on the background and aftermath of the horrible accident at a religious ceremony at Israel’s Mount Meron last week, which left 45 people dead – from Shmuel Rosner and Herb Keinon.
- Two articles pointing out the dangers of mooted plans to provide the Iranian regime with access to tens of billions of dollars as part of plans to return to the controversial 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal – here and here.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC expressing gratitude to PM Scott Morrison for his announcement that Australia will not be attending the UN’s “Durban 4” anti-racism conference in September, because it continues a controversial tradition at the UN of singling out Israel alone, of all the world’s nations, for condemnation at anti-racism events.
- Naomi Levin reporting on recent cuts in Australian foreign aid to the Palestinians.
- Ahron Shapiro crunches the numbers to debunk some myths about Israeli settlement growth during the Trump Administration.
- Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker discusses how US allies need to be wise about their cooperation with China, in a video excerpt from his recent AIJAC webinar.
- Counter-terrorism expert Lydia Khalil’s assessment of the real risk of violence in Australia from extreme right-wing movements, in a new video from AIJAC Insight.
Lapid given mandate to try and form the next government
BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre)
May 6, 2021
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin: After giving Netanyahu 28 days to form a government, has now provided a similar 28-day opportunity to Yair Lapid, leader of the second-largest party in the Knesset (Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com)
What happened: President Reuven Rivlin has entrusted Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, with the opportunity to try and build a viable coalition.
- Yesterday Rivlin consulted with party leaders after Benjamin Netanyahu’s 28 days to form a government expired. Lapid received 11 more recommendations than last time (6 from New Hope and 5 out of 6 from the Joint List), taking his endorsements to 56 seats.
- Yamina’s seven seats were alone in recommending their party leader Naftali Bennett. However, Bennett clarified that he does not rule out the possibility of forming a government with Lapid.
- Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamic Raam Party, wrote to the president that he would “cooperate positively with anyone who is entrusted with forming a government, that is to say the person that receives the most number of recommendations”.
- This led Rivlin to explain that his main consideration was the person “who has the best chance of forming a government that will have the confidence of the new Knesset. From the number of recommendations, it is clear that MK Yair Lapid could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset, despite there being many difficulties. Given these circumstances, returning the mandate to the Knesset would be a misapplication of the law and could result in a fifth round of elections before all possibilities for forming a government had been exhausted.”
- Upon receiving the endorsement Lapid said: “A unity government isn’t a compromise or a last resort – it’s a goal, it’s what we need. We need a government that will reflect the fact that we don’t hate one another. A government in which left, right and centre will work together to tackle the economic and security challenges we face. A government that will show that our differences are a source of strength, not weakness. I will do everything to ensure that an Israeli unity government will be formed as soon as possible so we can get to work for the people of Israel.”
- Earlier in the day, Bennett outlined his preference to form a “broad emergency government” over a fifth election.
- Following Rivlin’s announcement, Prime Minister Netanyahu attacked Bennett and his potential partners on the left, saying: ”Bennett spoke of a unity government. All he does is launder words in an attempt to mislead the public. Everyone knows that he wants to form a dangerous left-wing government. Can you protect IDF soldiers from ICC lawsuits with (Meretz leader) Nitzan Horowitz? Can you fight the nuclear agreement with Iran with Lapid?”
Context: Yair Lapid founded his party Yesh Atid nine years ago and has been a member of Knesset since 2013. This is the first time he has received the mandate to try and form a government.
- In 2019 he merged his party with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party to form Blue and White. Ahead of the second election that year he gave up a rotation agreement, stepping aside for Gantz to be their sole candidate for prime minister. After Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government in May 2020, the party split and Lapid became Head of the Opposition.
- It is now understood that Lapid and Bennett are working behind the scenes to form a broad unity government, with parity between left and right, that could involve Bennett serving first as prime minister in another rotation arrangement.
- Bennett’s role is key. Lapid cannot form a government without Bennett, and Gideon Saar’ New Hope Party will not join a government that is based on support from either Raam or the Joint List.
- Nevertheless, the combined coalition without the Arab parties is still short of the requisite 61 majority, unless they can either bring them inside or reach an understanding to have them abstain, allowing for a minority government to be formed.
- The picture is further complicated after new Yamina MK Amichai Chikli said yesterday: “I will vote against the formation of a government together with the Joint List and Meretz just as we pledged to the electorate.” The Likud is thought to be applying pressure on other MKs from Yamina in an effort to split the party.
- As a result of Lapid receiving the mandate, Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar is the new chairperson of the Knesset’s arrangements committee, replacing Likud MK Miki Zohar. This committee controls the legislative agenda until a new government is formed. Theoretically, they could now try and pass legislation to prevent a candidate under indictment from forming a government in the future.
After forming his own party in 2012, Yair Lapid (second from right) was a key player in the Blue and White party, which strongly challenged Netanyahu across three elections in 2019 and 2020, before splitting after the election in March of last year. (Photo: point of you / Shutterstock.com)
Looking ahead: Lapid and Bennett will now enter coalition negotiations in earnest, as they try to divide cabinet portfolios among all the partners and agree on government guidelines.
- The new government would focus on rehabilitating the economy and priorities a slew of socio-economic issues. Bennett alluded to this yesterday when he said, “On those issues in contention, we won’t be able to veer to the right or the left, but there is so much that we have in common. This is an opportunity to advance in areas that we do agree about.”
- The pair will also have to agree on who will fill the important role of Knesset speaker. Lapid is backing Meir Cohen from his party, whilst both Bennett and Saar are thought to favour Zeev Elkin.
- There is hope that they can reach an agreement within the next week or two, though formally, Lapid now has until June 2 to present a government.
- If they fail, the mandate is returned to the Knesset for any MK to present the support of 61 MKs within 21 days. If no candidate gets the required number of signatures, the Knesset will automatically dissolve and a fifth election will be held.
Can the Change Coalition End Israel’s Endless Election Cycle?
by David Makovsky
May 6, 2021
The diverse coalition may be able to form a viable government, but it will need to navigate carefully in light of internal political differences and Netanyahu’s presence in the opposition as a potential spoiler.
Billboards depicting Netanyahu and Lapid in Jerusalem (Photo: gali estrange / Shutterstock.com)
On May 5, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin asked Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid to form a government after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed to do so over the past month. The move marks the most formidable challenge yet to the incumbent, who has dominated Israeli politics since 2009. Lapid is expected to move quickly on assembling his “Change Coalition,” cobbling together a very broad collection of parliamentarians from the right, center, and left. If this effort succeeds, Yamina party chair Naftali Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first half of the government’s five-year term, eventually rotating with Lapid, who will serve as foreign minister in the interim. Benny Gantz would stay on as defense minister.
Although the coalition will have more seats from the center and left than the right, it will likely establish a parity system so that no side is able to pass deeply controversial policies. The resultant government’s guiding premise will be helping the economy recover while denying Netanyahu another opportunity to seek immunity from his ongoing corruption case. In response, Netanyahu seems determined to orchestrate opposition against the nascent Change Coalition and force Israel into a fifth round of elections, remaining the caretaker leader in the interim.
Why Couldn’t Netanyahu Form a Government?
The prospects of Lapid and Bennett assembling a stable coalition and forming a viable government remain uncertain, but the reasons behind Netanyahu’s setbacks over the past four weeks—and four election rounds—are clear at this point. Much like what happened in 1992 and 1999, the Likud Party’s apparent undoing is largely attributable to a failure of leadership on the right. By not fostering a sense of collaborative purpose among his fellow right-wing politicians, Netanyahu created too many internal enemies.
Most notably, four of the top officials expected to join the Change Coalition formerly served as Netanyahu’s closest aides—Bennett, Gideon Saar, Zeev Elkin, and Avigdor Liberman—so why did all of them focus their campaigns on bringing him down? One key moment was Netanyahu’s decision to renege on his rotation agreement with Gantz last year, which fostered deep distrust toward his other promises and hampered his ability to govern. Moreover, Saar and Elkin feared that he would continue denigrating Israel’s judicial and law enforcement institutions in order to delegitimize his court case. Former justice minister and ardent right-winger Ayelet Shaked went so far as to assail Netanyahu’s “lust for power” in a recently leaked tape, describing the prime minister and his wife as “dictators.” Such tensions no doubt influenced right-wing voters in the March 23 election, where Likud lost over 20 percent of its tally compared to previous rounds.
Netanyahu’s miscalculations continued during and after the election. His campaign had focused on helping a small, far-right party pass the threshold for entry into parliament so that no right-wing votes would be “lost.” Yet the Religious Zionism faction, led by Bezalel Smotrich, turned on him after passing the threshold, denying the prime minister’s request to use the United Arab List (led by Mansour Abbas) as a safety net against parliamentary no-confidence votes. When Netanyahu pressed Bennett to join his coalition, the Yamina leader told him that he first needed to secure a Smotrich-Abbas understanding in order to guarantee a parliamentary majority of sixty-one seats. Netanyahu tried to outmaneuver the Religious Zionists by appealing to sympathetic rabbis, but most of them took Smotrich’s side. Similarly, his assumption that Bennett would cave to right-wing pressure and declare fealty to him proved wrong, and his promises of a short rotating premiership (reportedly without authority over the security services or relations with Washington and Moscow) were too little too late.
One move that might have made a difference for Netanyahu is allowing a Likud figurehead to serve as prime minister in his place. In addition to demonstrating his commitment to the party over his personal interests, this could have enabled him to continue controlling most government decisionmaking behind the scenes while seeking immunity from prosecution. Yet this approach would also launch a succession struggle within the Likud, and Netanyahu is clearly not ready to consider a post-Netanyahu era—indeed, he is expected to announce shortly that he will stay on as party leader.
Many will salute the long-term societal impact of one Netanyahu decision—partially opening the door to the United Arab List—but this move came at a short-term political cost. In doing so, he may have inadvertently helped Lapid and Bennett legitimize Arab parties as more integral to Israel’s political system, thus boosting the coalition arraying against him.
Can the Change Coalition Succeed?
The weaknesses of Lapid and Bennett’s potential government are obvious. As a political hybrid with fundamental differences over issues such as Palestinian rights and judicial activism, the Change Coalition will be vulnerable to fracturing over various domestic and regional developments, particularly in times of crisis. One of Bennett’s seven Knesset members has already announced that he will not join the coalition, so the leadership will need to bring on even more Arab members to ensure sufficient parliamentary support. This is why the threat of opposition from Netanyahu cannot be discounted, since he will no doubt try to pick off additional defectors and exacerbate wedge issues in order to break the coalition.
A Lapid-Bennett government would also have several strengths, however. First, the presence of Netanyahu in the opposition could energize coalition members, since he is the glue that brought them together. Yet they will still need to demonstrate competent governance if they hope to jettison his narrative that he is indispensable to Israel.
Incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu has handed back his mandate to form government, but is likely to remain as a determined opposition leader if his opponents do succeed in forming a coalition which excludes him. (Photo: Gil Cohen Magen / Shutterstock.com).
Second, Lapid and Bennett appear to trust each other, at least for now. When they worked together in Netanyahu’s government of 2013-2015, they both sought to curb the power of the ultraorthodox, and both felt victimized by the prime minister’s decision to bring that government down for his own purposes.
Third, now that right-wing figures Bennett and Saar have crossed the political Rubicon, they likely realize they may not be able to cross back. That is, if they fail to produce results and the Change government folds, they could face angry right-wing voters in a fifth election. Like other coalition members, they are therefore keen on sticking to consensus issues such as facilitating the post-pandemic economic recovery, making infrastructure improvements, and adopting a budget for the first time since 2018.
Fourth, the coalition will likely be bolstered by growing public revulsion over the fact that certain ultraorthodox elements have been able to flaunt health restrictions during the pandemic. This sentiment reached a fever pitch after state authorities were barred from supervising a mass religious festival at Mount Meron last week, which ended in tragedy when forty-five participants were killed. The prospect of ultraorthodox parties being shut out of the next government may signal community members that they can no longer reject the rules.
Implications for U.S. Policy
Despite its wariness about wading into the treacherous waters of Israeli politics, the Biden administration would privately welcome a more ideologically diverse leadership after six years of purely right-wing governments, particularly given the Change Coalition’s commitment to judiciary independence. Similarly, reduced ultraorthodox influence would be welcomed by the largely non-orthodox American Jewish community, which tends to vote Democrat in large numbers.
Yet Washington has no illusions about the prospective policy views of a government headed by Bennett. The Palestinian issue in particular could break his coalition, so any progress on that front will need to be modest at best. For example, Bennett is highly unlikely to support granting the Palestinian Authority jurisdiction over any part of Area C, the portion of the West Bank that lies outside Palestinian urban areas and surrounding environs.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could complicate U.S. relations as well. According to polls, many Israelis remain skeptical about the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, so U.S. efforts to return to those terms are bound to create friction. Netanyahu has always projected implacable opposition to the JCPOA, and although he has been decidedly less confrontational on this issue during the Biden administration, his posture may change if he is no longer prime minister. The Change Coalition is bound to look at the deal’s renewal through the same skeptical lens and convey those views to Washington, especially if negotiators do not commit to pursuing follow-on agreements that address the JCPOA’s gaps. The coalition may not resort to the same confrontational tactics that Netanyahu used in 2015, but members are likely united in their desire to preserve Israel’s options for independent action if circumstances warrant it.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, creator of the podcast Decision Points, and coauthor with Dennis Ross of the book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.
Top 10 challenges Lapid, Bennett face on the way to change
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett crossed a hurdle when the Yesh Atid leader inherited Netanyahu’s mandate, but there are still obstacles ahead
By GIL HOFFMAN
Jerusalem Post, MAY 6, 2021 22:20
Rotating PMs?: Yair Lapid (left) of the Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bannett of the Yamina party (right) will be the leading players in any new “change” government – but will face considerable challenges in holding any such government together. (Photos: Wikimedia Commons | License details)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid reached the new peak of his political career on Wednesday night, wearing his trademark black shirt in the comfort of his own backyard in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Aviv neighborhood.Lapid greeted with a smile the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Residence, Harel Tubi, who came to Lapid’s home to deliver the mandate to form a government that President Reuven Rivlin had granted him earlier that evening. They signed the documents on the table in the yard, posed for pictures with the mandate and moved on.
At midnight the previous night, Lapid crossed another milestone in the comfort of his home when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate ended after four weeks with no coalition.
But from now on, the comfort is over.
Rivlin recognized the challenges ahead when he granted Lapid the mandate with a caveat.
“It is clear that MK Yair Lapid could form a government that has the confidence of the Knesset, despite there being many difficulties,” Rivlin said.
Lapid’s soon-to-be prime ministerial partner in a rotation, Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett, also crossed a milestone in an odd situation this week. The long-awaited offer from Netanyahu to go first in a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office finally arrived.
But it did not come directly in any of their several face-to-face meetings over the past month, including a secret meeting last Thursday night at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Bennett received the offer of his life via a statement to the press that Netanyahu purposely released on WhatsApp 20 minutes before a Yamina faction meeting in which Bennett addressed the media on Monday.
While reporters waited in the next room, an aide read Bennett Netanyahu’s message. The Yamina leader told the aide that the offer was “fake” – using a slang word in Hebrew, instead of his usual English.
Bennett then delivered what Yamina MKs called a passionate address to them in the closed-door portion of the meeting after reporters left the room.
“From the start I tried to help Netanyahu build a right-wing government, but it was never possible,” he said. He told the MKs to withstand pressure from the Likud: “We’re not less right-wing than them, we’re not less nationalist, and we don’t love Israel any less.”
The emotional highlight came when he told the MKs that if any of them had a problem with the formation of a unity government, they should resign immediately. Previously unknown MK Amichai Chikli heard the request, stayed put, and announced his opposition the following day, when Bennett was on his way to the President’s Residence.
Had Chikli not rebelled, Yamina officials believe the Likud and its satellite parties, as well as New Hope, would have recommended Bennett to form a government. But sources close to Rivlin said he never actually had a chance to receive the mandate.
Chikli was a last-minute choice for Bennett to put fifth on his list. It was supposed to go to former Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav, and when he declined, Bennett needed another secular candidate, so he moved up Chikli, who was 9th on Bennett’s New Right list in the April 2019 election and blasted Bennett after the party failed to cross the threshold.
Bennett was furious but stuck to his party’s plan to capture the premiership, which was revealed exclusively by The Jerusalem Post on March 5: Let Netanyahu get the first mandate and fail, let Lapid get the second mandate, but end up being the one who forms the government.
To reach that goal, Bennett knows there are plenty of challenges that he still must endure and his success is by no means guaranteed.
HERE ARE the top 10 obstacles to overcome on the way to building a coalition:
1. Maintaining momentum
Bennett and Lapid both told confidants that they want to reach a deal within a week. They know that if they start fighting over petty details, they could approach the end of the four-week mandate without a deal, and pressure could intensify on the precipice. That is why marathon talks will be conducted, mostly behind the scenes. The days of high-profile talks before the cameras in posh hotels are over.
2. Finishing the fragmenting of the faction
Chikli’s departure has put the “coalition of change” in danger. One more rebellion could be enough to kill it. MKs Ayelet Shaked and Idit Silman vowed to stay with Bennett, but more suspects remain. There will be pressure on Chikli to quit the Knesset and be replaced by the next candidate on the Yamina list, deaf activist Shirley Pinto.
3. Ignoring the opposition
Netanyahu enjoyed being opposition leader and bringing down Ehud Olmert using protests of Second Lebanon War soldiers organized by his chief of staff at the time, Naftali Bennett. Likud and Religious Zionist Party activists will protest outside the homes of Yamina and New Hope MKs and harass their families. It’s not easy, but they must be ignored.
4. Preventing piggishness on portfolios
Bennett and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar are insisting that all so-called ideological portfolios remain with their parties. If Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz fights to be education minister and Labor leader Merav Michaeli insists on the Interior portfolio, instead of taking the Environment and Health ministries, respectively, there could end up being a fifth election.
The anti-Netanyahu coalition that would be the backbone of any “change” government is very ideological diverse – including right-wing parties like Yamina and New Hope and left-wing parties like Labor and Meretz. It will also require support from at least one anti-Zionist Arab-dominated party.
5. Mending the mechanism
The outgoing government had arrangements for maintaining equal powers for the Likud and Blue and White despite their different sizes. Their system did not work, due to lack of trust from the outset, which resulted in the paralysis of both the parliament and the ministers. A different mechanism must be found with the same goal of maintaining the balance between Right, Center and Left but with very different results.
6. Avoiding arguments on ideology
Likud faction chairman Miki Zohar tried to start a fight among the parties set to join the coalition by proposing bills strongly supported by Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu and opposed by Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz in the Knesset Arrangements Committee on Tuesday. That was just a preview of what will happen throughout the term. Key ideological issues will have to be set aside for this unity government to last.
7. Enticing the Arabs
There is no coalition possible for Bennett without Ra’am (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas, just like for Netanyahu. And just as Netanyahu was ready to pay Abbas handsomely for his support of a minority coalition, Bennett will, too. Abbas’s demands are for uncontroversial issues like funding for infrastructure, schools and stopping violence in the Arab sector. The price could be steep but worth paying for long-awaited political stability.
8. Judicious on Judaism
There are very different views on religion and state among the Orthodox MKs in Yamina and the secularists in Yisrael Beytenu. This will not be a government that takes revolutionary steps on such controversial issues. Bennett wants to be extra careful in hopes of wooing Shas or United Torah Judaism to the coalition. That hope may be fruitless, but being careful couldn’t hurt anyway.
9. Control over the coronavirus
It is too easy to forget that the reason for what Bennett calls an emergency government is that there is still a pandemic raging around the world that could easily return to wreak havoc in Israel. Bennett built up his image as a professional in his handling of the virus as defense minister. Now he doesn’t want his party to have the Health portfolio that he demanded from Netanyahu. It will go to Labor or Yesh Atid, but he’d have ultimate control as prime minister. This could be a prescription for problems that proper dialogue could prevent.
10. Explaining to the international community
Foreign media and diplomats are already warning about Netanyahu potentially being replaced by a candidate even further to the Right. Past hawkish statements by Bennett are being highlighted, setting the stage for him to be demonized, and Israel along with him. Having Lapid as his foreign minister, with his moderate persona and his British-accented English could be helpful in telling the world that this will truly be a unity government that represents the entire spectrum and won’t take controversial steps.
Gil Hoffman is the chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post.