Bennett, Lapid in unity plea as coalition teeters: ‘We won’t give up on our country’

With the floundering coalition facing multiple crises, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid marked the one-year anniversary of its formation with a plea for its political partners not to give up.

“This government has lifted the country from paralysis to growth, from weakness to deterrence, from chaos to normalcy. This government must not be stopped, we must continue to fight, for the sake of the Israeli public. Our government has done in one year what [other] governments have not done in 10 years,” Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“I admit this is not the government most of us imagined in advance. But precisely because the alternative is continued strife and chaos — we have discovered that working together has power. We have proven that people with different, sometimes even conflicting, opinions are able to work together for the country,” he said.

“We are not giving up on our country. We are not giving up on the possibility of cooperation between people with different opinions, who love this country equally. We do not have the luxury of breaking, because we have no other country,” Bennett said.

Lapid urged his coalition partners to focus on the good done by the government, noting that consensus on all political matters was the preserve of a dictatorship.

“This government is worth fighting for, and we will fight for it. It is the right thing for the State of Israel and the citizens of Israel,” he said. “There is nothing easier than destroying; there is nothing more difficult than building.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (2nd right) and Yair Lapid (C) at the cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 12, 2022 (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/POOL)

“This is a historic government. It has improved life in Israel in every possible parameter — security, the economy, foreign relations and the rule of law. But above all, it brought back the idea of a common good,” Lapid said.

“The common good does not mean we agree on everything — only dictatorships agree on everything. Common good means that people who have disagreements find a way to live and work together. We do not let hatred and incitement run our lives,” he said.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced to the cabinet that the contentious bill to continue extending Israeli legal provisions to settlers living in the West Bank would advance through the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, paving the way for the government to potentially make a second attempt to pass the emergency regulations.

The legislation failed in a dramatic vote in the Knesset last week after some coalition members refused to back it.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“It is essential to pass the law before the end of June in order to prevent legal chaos that will harm the core of the national interest as well as many Israeli citizens,” Sa’ar said.

“At the appropriate time when it seems that the coalition member parties have completed the processes they need to complete, we will also bring this to the Knesset,” he said.

Sitting at a 60-60 seat parity with the opposition, the government appears to still lack a majority to pass the bill.

The cabinet meeting was held shortly after Bennett met with Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who has been threatening to leave the coalition unless he can be shown that it has a viable way forward.

It was the second meeting between the two in a number of days, and reportedly lasted less than an hour. There was no statement issued by either side at its conclusion.

Yamina MK Nir Orbach seen leaving the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, where he met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, June 12, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The right-wing MK has been pegged as a flight risk in the months since rebel Yamina MK Idit Silman’s defection, and he has issued ultimatums for his continued support of the government.

Ahead of the meeting, it was reported that the premier planned on asking Orbach to be patient and give him some more time. Unnamed coalition sources told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday that the situation with Orbach was under control and he would not be defecting to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

Orbach has publicly denied persistent reports that he is negotiating with Netanyahu to potentially join Likud and form an alternate government. Sources close to the Yamina MK have told Hebrew-language media that he is exploring such a possibility. However, senior Likud members told Channel 12 on Saturday that they were becoming disillusioned with Orbach’s stalling and wanted him to quit the government immediately.

Meanwhile, with Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim facing pressure to quit, the next in line on the party’s slate — Alaa al-Din Jabareen — announced Sunday that he was quitting the party and therefore would not be taking Ghanaim’s place if the wayward lawmaker were to resign.

MK Mazen Ghanaim on the Knesset floor, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Ra’am holds four Knesset seats, the death of MK Saeed al-Harumi last year means the party’s fifth candidate is already in the Knesset. The resignation from the slate means that the number seven candidate on the party’s list — Ataa Abu Mudaygham, the deputy mayor of Rahat — could enter the Knesset. That would give Ra’am a representative from the south, a key constituency that supported Al-Harumi until his death.

Ghanaim and rebel Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi are under pressure after voting with the opposition last week against the legislation to renew the application of Israeli law to settlers in the West Bank. The Islamist Ra’am party’s three other Knesset members abstained, as did rebel Yamina MK Silman of Bennett’s party, and the bill failed to pass in a 58-52 vote.

Pressure is mounting on Rinawie Zoabi, and Meretz announced Sunday that the party’s leadership would hold an online discussion that evening to discuss the crisis.

Rinawie Zoabi said Saturday she has completely “lost faith” in the leaders of the coalition and has no intention of saving the government. She briefly quit the coalition a few weeks ago before being cajoled back, but since then has continued to defy the party line.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi in the Knesset plenum on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

She said her only demand from coalition architect Lapid had been that she not have to vote for laws that are difficult for the Palestinians and her conscience. She accused the other coalition members of enacting a series of laws that “broke the status quo” and accused Sa’ar of threatening that “something will happen” to those coalition members who opposed the West Bank civil law bill.

But she said she would vote against the law a second time even if it meant that the government would fall and that the Meretz party would not reenter the Knesset in future elections, as polls predict.

However, the Kan public broadcaster said Rinawie Zoabi had in fact made a list of demands the coalition must meet to secure her resignation.

Among her reported demands were for a government plan focused on developing Nazareth, the transfer of promised funds for a government hospital in the city, increased responsibilities for local Arab municipal authorities, and an increase in Arab representation in the public sector.

On Saturday night, several Meretz supporters protested outside Rinawie Zoabi’s home in the northern town of Nof Hagalil, calling on her to quit the Knesset.

In a statement, the protesters said Rinawie Zoabi’s conduct could bring down the coalition “and lead to a government of darkness led by [Itamar] Ben Gvir, [Bezalel] Smotrich and [Benjamin] Netanyahu,” referring to a pair of far-right opposition MKs and the former prime minister.

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