Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he would let his estranged former protege Naftali Bennett serve as premier ahead of him in a coalition to prevent a “left-wing government.”
But Bennett, a right-wing nationalist who emerged as a kingmaker following Israel’s inconclusive March 23 vote, swiftly dampened the notion that a deal with Netanyahu was in the works.
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After his Likud party won the most seats in the vote -- Israel’s fourth in less than two years -- Netanyahu earned a 28-day mandate to form a coalition.
That mandate expires at midnight Tuesday-Wednesday.
The election further highlighted Israel’s deep and varied political divisions.
For Netanyahu, securing a coalition likely means reaching an agreement among right-wingers including Bennett, ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, and also the conservative Islamic Raam party.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving premier and the first to be indicted in office, has become a deeply divisive figure. The 71-year-old said he would step back temporarily if that helped the right-wing retain power.
“To prevent a left-wing government, I told Naftali Bennett I’d be willing to accept his request for a rotation deal in which he’d be prime minister first for a year,” Netanyahu said.
Support from Bennett’s Yamina party, which controls seven parliamentary seats, would move the right-wing bloc closer to a 61-seat majority but would not guarantee a stable coalition.
One factor that would still need to be addressed to form such a majority is that Religious Zionism, a far-right grouping, has vowed not to sit in a government formed with Raam’s support, due to the Arab party’s pro-Palestinian ideology.
Speaking to Yamina colleagues, Bennett said he did “not understand” Netanyahu’s proposal.
“I did not ask Netanyahu to be prime minister. I asked him to form a government, which, unfortunately, he cannot do,” Bennett said.
The multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur said he remains ideologically committed to the right-wing.
But, he stressed, his priority was to end Israel’s unprecedented political gridlock and avoid a fifth election in less than three years.
“I’m ready to form a right-wing government, yesterday,” Bennett said.
“But let me repeat clearly what I said from the beginning: If Netanyahu fails to form a right-wing government, we will form a unity government,” he added.
“The most harmful thing for the State of Israel right now is another election.”
If Netanyahu cannot form a government before his mandate expires, President Reuven Rivlin could tap opposition leader Yair Lapid to pursue a coalition.
Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party finished second in the March polls.
The former television presenter has said that he would be prepared to allow Bennett the chance to serve ahead of him as premier in a rotating arrangement in the interest of ending Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure.
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