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11 days to go for Netanyahu to form a government

What’s happened: Netanyahu has continued to suggest that the best way to resolve the deadlock is not to go to a fifth election, but to change the law and hold direct elections for prime minister.

  • According to a poll on Channel 12 News last night, 48 per cent support direct election for prime minister instead of a fifth election, with 39 per cent against.  When asked  whom would they support, Netanyahu receives 39 per cent, Lapid 23 per cent, Benny Gantz 9 per cent, with both Bennett and Saar on 8 per cent each.
  • Despite favourable polls, it appears unlikely that there is a parliamentary majority to support the change of law.  Netanyahu is placing increasing pressure on Bennett to support this move.
  • Bennett has said that his first preference was to form a right-wing government (with Netanyahu), but that if one were not formed, he would take steps to form a national unity government.
  • However, it is thought Bennett is also already in parallel talks in an effort to become prime minister himself in a rotation government with Lapid.
  • Also yesterday, the High Court of Justice ruled Netanyahu and Defence Minister Gantz must explain why the even the interim government has failed to appoint a justice minister will communications, science and social equity ministers also remain vacant.  The court ruled that they must submit their answer to the court by 2pm Sunday, with a follow up hearing scheduled for later that day.

Context: Netanyahu’s route to a government appears to be blocked as the hardline Religious Zionists Party refuses to join any coalition that is reliant on the Islamist Raam party, despite Netanyahu’s pressure.

  • According to Israeli media, speculation talks between Lapid and Bennett are progressing in parallel.
  • One of Lapid’s conditions is for a cabinet of only 18 ministers as he promised his voters, whilst Bennett is keen for slightly more. If Bennett was to serve first as prime minister and Lapid as foreign minister, Lapid is backing Gantz to remain as defence minister, whilst Bennett prefers to give this post to the more right-wing Saar, freeing up the justice minister for his deputy Ayelet Shaked.
  • Bennett is also looking for an inbuilt right-wing majority, at least in the security cabinet, to reflect the overall balance of the Knesset and the ‘will of the people’.
  • Bennett and Lapid at least appear to be negotiating in good faith and trying to work through their  disagreements.  They have worked together in the past, both as partners in Netanyahu’s government in 2013 and more recently together in the opposition.
  • They have reportedly reached a consensus on the sensitive issue of religion and state, whereby their government will adopt a liberal Orthodox approach, backing Tzohar rabbis instead of the ultra-Orthodox.
  • The unity option, with the backing of Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labour, Meretz plus the three right wing parties still only has 58 seats, and would still require at least the abstentions of the Arab parties.

Looking ahead: With time running out, the Likud is still trying to recruit deserters from the opposing block.  Their latest targets are Ayelet Shaked and Abir Kara from Yamina, but this seems unlikely.

  • Another option being explored by the Likud as a last chance to remain in power is to let another candidate from the party form a government. The favoured choice appears to be Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, who is considered the most loyal to Netanyahu. However, several other senior Likud figures view themselves as candidates and would seek an internal election to choose a replacement.
  • If Netanyahu fails to form a government by 4 May, President Rivlin then has the choice to either give the mandate to someone else (most likely Lapid) or to return the mandate to the Knesset, and allow any other MK (again possibly Lapid, Bennett or someone else from Likud) to present the endorsement of 61 MKs.

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