Netanyahu to host Bennett at his official residence for crucial coalition talks

Seeking a path to securing a ruling majority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to meet Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett Thursday evening in the first sit-down between the two since the premier was tasked with forming a coalition.

The meeting, reportedly set for 8:30 p.m., will be held at the prime minister’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.

It will be the first time Bennett has been allowed into the complex in over a decade, due to past tensions between him and Netanyahu. The premier’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, has reportedly long vetoed Bennett’s entry. But now Netanyahu depends on Bennett’s support if he wants to keep his hope of forming a government alive.

In consultations Monday with President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu received the endorsement from representatives of 52 lawmakers, the most of any candidate but short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Yamina, with seven seats, recommended Bennett as prime minister, the only party to do so. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid got 45 endorsements. New Hope, Ra’am and the Joint List, with 16 seats between them, did not recommend any candidate for prime minister.

Bennett on Tuesday said he was open to talks with Likud and called for a right-wing government, but didn’t commit to backing Netanyahu. Even with Yamina’s support, Netanyahu’s bloc would still be two seats short of a majority, with limited options.

Screen capture from video of Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, April 6, 2021. (Kan public broadcaster)

Since being tasked Tuesday with putting together a government, Netanyahu has met with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, both of which had endorsed Netanyahu.

Before Thursday’s meeting with Bennett, Netanyahu was also set to meet MK Bezalel Smotrich, whose far-right Religious Zionism party has firmly aligned itself with the prime minister. It has, however, said it will not sit in a coalition supported by the Islamist Ra’am party, the apparent only other option remaining for Netanyahu with all others having ruled out joining his coalition.

Speaking Wednesday before meeting with Netanyahu, United Torah Judaism No. 2. Yaakov Litzman hinted at the possibility that Religious Zionism could officially stay out of government while supporting it from the outside, in order not to be part of a coalition dependent on Arab Israeli parties.

Despite Shas and UTJ’s public expressions of support, television reports said they told Netanyahu in their meeting with him that they will not go with him to fifth elections.

The Haredi parties noted Bennett’s potential options for forming a government and predicted he would not forgo the opportunity to be prime minister, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

A separate report on Channel 12 news said the ultra-Orthodox parties asked Netanyahu to do everything to prevent the formation of a government that would see Bennett and Lapid switch off as prime minister. Lapid and the Haredi parties have long been at loggerheads over the Yesh Atid chief’s support for introducing core curriculum studies into ultra-Orthodox schools and ending blanket exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with fellow MKs during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

While Lapid got significantly more endorsements than Bennett and his party has 17 seats to Yamina’s seven, he revealed Tuesday that he offered Bennett to serve as prime minister first in a rotation government. In apparent response to Lapid, Bennett said he would not head a left-wing coalition or abandon his principles.

New Hope, which campaigned on replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, has also voiced support for a power-sharing deal between Bennett and Lapid.

If Netanyahu does not succeed in forming a government, the president can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government.

Rivlin has indicated he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election, the fifth in under three years.

Neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu bloc currently has a clear path to a coalition majority.

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