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Still Chance for New Israeli Government as Lapid, Liberman Sign Agreement
Yair Lapid arrives at the President's Office in Jerusalem to receive the mandate to form a new government on May 5, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Still Chance for New Israeli Government as Lapid, Liberman Sign Agreement

Lapid may not be as lucky with the other right-wing parties he hopes to attract to his anti-Netanyahu ‘change bloc' as Bennett remains wild-card.  

With eight days remaining until Israeli lawmaker Yair Lapid returns the mandate to form a government to the president, he and fellow Knesset member Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, declared that they have reached a coalition agreement as a first step toward forming a government.

But Lapid may not be as lucky with the other right-wing parties he hopes to attract to his anti-Netanyahu “change bloc.” Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope party, is hesitant to join; and Naftali Bennett, head of Yamina, said in recent days that joining such a government is off the table, making the path forward for Lapid unclear.

Dr. Gayil Talshir, a senior lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on Israeli politics, explains that signing an agreement with Liberman and his seven-seat party is part of Lapid’s larger strategy to form a government before his time runs out. “His strategy is to sign with the members of the bloc, apart from the 13 [Knesset seats] of Yamina and New Hope, and then say ‘there’s a government ready, based on what we almost agreed upon on Jerusalem Day, before the rockets flew towards Jerusalem. Sign and we’ll start working on Sunday,’” she told The Media Line.

The change bloc appeared to be on the path to forming a government earlier this month, but in response to violence that erupted throughout the country on May 10, Bennett declared that he is no longer considering the previously discussed coalition.

Concurrent with the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, a wave of violence hit Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities and neighborhoods. A large amount of public and private property was destroyed. Synagogues in the cities of Ramla and Lod were burned. Several Jews were the victims of so-called lynches by groups of Arab Israelis and, in an attack broadcast on television, an Arab Israeli man assaulted by a group of Jewish right-wing extremists and savagely beaten required hospitalization and surgery.

However, now that the situation has calmed, it is unclear whether Bennett’s support for the alternative coalition really is unattainable.

On the other side, sitting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu currently seems to have reached an impasse. Even if he manages to secure Bennett’s support, he would require hard-line right-wing lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich to agree to a government in partnership with Israel’s Islamist party, the United Arab List. Smotrich has so far held strong in his refusal to agree to any such arrangement.

Lapid has said that his chances of forming a government are low and is threatening to disband the current Knesset if he fails. This would prevent Netanyahu from another attempt at remaining prime minister before another – fifth – round of elections in just over two years.

Talshir, however, estimates that Lapid may still stand a chance.

“What Bennett and [Yamina lawmaker Ayelet] Shaked are being offered by the other side, Netanyahu’s government, is a very unattractive proposal,” she said, and Bennett’s only way to the premiership is through teaming up with Lapid. Still, she added, “this is very problematic because Bennett basically betrayed the change bloc.”

Professor Moshe Hellinger, a senior lecturer in the political science department at Bar-Ilan University, though, stresses that the possibility of a government rests on the ability of Lapid’s potential partners to ensure the support of their parties, which isn’t a certainty. “The name of the game is the inner dynamics of the three parties: Yamina, the United Arab List and Sa’ar’s party, New Hope, with the latest clash between Jews and Arabs in the mixed cities in the background,” he told The Media Line.

Hellinger explains that it isn’t clear whether Bennett and lawmaker Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List, enjoy the support of their party members. There is a lot of anger within the religious Zionist community, Yamina’s base, toward Israel’s Arab population following the recent violence, he says. It may be very difficult for Bennett to convince the lawmakers in his party to support him in forming a government that includes the Islamist party. At the same time, Abbas is under fire from within. The Israeli Arab politician visited a synagogue burnt in the riots, and Hellinger says that he is now facing calls from party members that he should be replaced.

Abbas, Bennett and Sa’ar all wish to join Lapid and his coalition, the professor said, but without their party members’ support, they aren’t worth much in the fight to form a new government.

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