As the dust settled from the 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza that ended in a ceasefire early Friday, Israel’s politicians renewed on Sunday their efforts to broker a coalition agreement that will avoid yet another round of elections.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who holds the mandate from the president to form the next government for the next 10 days, met with Labor party leader Merav Michaeli and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to restart the talks frozen by the war.
After the meeting with Gantz, the parties issued a statement saying their negotiating teams “would meet to discuss details in the coming days.”
Lapid hopes to finish the coalition talks by June 2, or the mandate will go to the Knesset as a whole, which will have 21 days to choose a prime minister from among its members. If it fails to do so, the 24th Knesset will automatically dissolve and Israel will face a fifth election within two and a half years.
As Lapid relaunched coalition talks with center-left parties, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was busy on Sunday trying to hold on to right-wing Yamina to prevent the party from turning to Lapid.
According to the Walla news site, Likud has offered Yamina leader Naftali Bennett the defense ministry and the post of acting prime minister — the cabinet member who fills in for the prime minister when he travels or if he is incapacitated. The party would also receive seven slots in the top 40 positions on the Likud Knesset slate should a government fail to be formed.
A Channel 12 report offered the addition that an unspecified senior cabinet post was also offered to Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s no. 2.
The Likud offer is dramatically diminished from what the party had put on the table before the Gaza conflict, which would have seen Bennett serve as prime minister for at least a year.
Bennett, under pressure from the right and from members of his own slate, especially Shaked, announced last week that a unity government with Lapid was “off the table.”
Netanyahu has on several occasions over the past month accused Bennett of scheming against a right-wing government. Bennett has responded by publicly backing a Netanyahu-led government, but noting that the right-Haredi bloc that supports Netanyahu — Yamina included — only has 59 seats in the current Knesset, two short of the 61 needed for a majority.
Netanyahu and Religious Zionism leader Betzalel Smotrich have insisted in return that if Bennett publicly abandoned the idea of a unity government with the center-left, then breakaway MKs from Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party would join the new coalition in order to avert another election – despite the move being a violation of New Hope’s primary election promise.
Yamina appeared unimpressed by Likud’s offer on Sunday, noting in a statement that the promised defectors from New Hope have yet to materialize.
“As we’ve said from the start, Yamina is interested in establishing a government, not in imaginary offers of a government that doesn’t exist,” the party said in a statement. “It’s been ten days already since Yamina took the ‘change government’ [without Netanyahu] off the table, and we’re still waiting for the two MKs Netanyahu and Smotrich promised they’d find.”
In a post earlier Sunday blasting what he described as Netanyahu’s mismanagement of the country’s affairs and prioritizing of “personal and political considerations” over the country’s wellbeing, Bennett insisted there were “a number of possibilities for forming a government, if we only dropped the boycotts and understood the needs of the hour.”
The vague comment was read by some as indicating Bennett still held out hope for a unity government with centrist Yesh Atid, and by others as a call for Sa’ar to backtrack on his election promise not to sit in a Netanyahu government, allowing a right-wing majority government to be voted into power.
Likud’s coalition chairman in the Knesset, MK Miki Zohar, insisted in an interview with Channel 12 on Sunday that “there’s still a danger that Bennett will join up with the ‘change bloc.’”
The deadlock remains
Two major polls on Sunday offered some indication of the public mood after the ceasefire. Israelis’ minds were largely unchanged about who should lead them – the numbers are still a deadlock – and are generally unsatisfied with the conduct of the Gaza fighting.
In a Channel 12 poll, Likud got 30 seats, Yesh Atid 21, Blue and White 10, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 7, Religious Zionism 7, Labor 6, Israel Beytenu 6, New Hope 6, Yamina 5, the Joint List 5, Meretz 4 and Ra’am 4.
A Channel 13 poll largely confirmed the Channel 12 findings, giving Likud one fewer, at 29 seats, and Yesh Atid one more with 22. Blue and White did even better with 11 (fully four seats more than its current showing), Yamina got 8, the Joint List 8, Religious Zionism 8, Labor 7, Shas 7, United Torah Judaism 6, Yisrael Beytenu 5, New Hope 5, and Meretz 4. Ra’am failed to clear the 3.25 percent vote threshold for entering the Knesset.
The figures suggest a fifth election will deliver the same deadlock as the past four. Despite the dramatic reshuffling among the smaller parties, both polls give the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc the same 58 seats, one fewer than its current 59 and three fewer than the 61 needed for a majority.
The major winners in a new election, according to the poll, are Yesh Atid, which jumps from 17 seats in the current Knesset to 21 or 22, and Blue and White, up from 7 to 10 or 11.
Netanyahu has tried in recent weeks to advance an idea that would circumvent a fifth indecisive election: a one-off direct vote for prime minister. Netanyahu has led comfortably by over 10 points in past polls that ask Israelis how they’d vote in such a direct election.
In the Channel 12 poll, that gap shrinks to just five points — 40% for Netanyahu and 35% for Yair Lapid – and in the Channel 13 poll to just four – with 41% for Netanyahu and 37% for Lapid.
Netanyahu wins a more comfortable 60-21 among self-described right-wing voters, highlighting the slow erosion of support he has experienced on the right over the past two years of deadlock. Nearly a fifth, or 19%, chose neither candidate.
Lapid, for his part, suffers from skepticism on the left. He wins 61% of self-described center-left voters in a direct-election scenario, compared to Netanyahu’s 8%, but fully 31% of that group did not name either candidate.
The poll also asked Israelis what they thought of Friday’s ceasefire. A plurality of 47% said they opposed the agreement while 35% supported it. The ceasefire has been criticized by many on the right for stopping Operation Guardian of the Walls before Hamas’s regime in Gaza was toppled.
Among the self-described right, opposition to the ceasefire was 58% to 28% support, while on the center-left 49% supported and 30% opposed.
Asked who “won” the conflict, 50% said neither side, 28% said Israel, 16% said Hamas and 2% said both sides. Two-thirds of Israelis, or 67%, said they expected another round of fighting with Hamas in the next three years or less. Just 9% said they believed there would not be another conflict in the next three years.