A surprise alliance between far-right and centrist Israeli political stars who reject privileges for ultra-orthodox Jews is frustrating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government.
More than a month after Israel’s election, Netanyahu is still without a new coalition, his hopes of enlisting traditionally loyal ultra-Orthodox cabinet partners challenged by a pact between newcomers Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.
Lapid, a former TV anchor who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, and Bennett, millionaire leader of the far-right Jewish Home, surged into second and fourth place in Israel’s 22 January election, boosted in part by their opposition to blanket military draft exemptions enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox.
Their two parties control a kingmaking 31 of parliament’s 120 seats, as many as Netanyahu’s rightist Likud-Beitenu list, which won the election but with a weaker-than-forecast showing that left him off-balance as he strives for a third term.
Lapid, 49, gained wide backing among young, secular voters and has called for peace talks with Palestinians. Bennett, 40, rejects any future Palestinian state and has strong support among Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.
But despite hailing from different ends of the political spectrum, the two leaders agree on a need to “share the national burden” - a rejection of privileges for the ultra-Orthodox.
Both men say they will not join a Netanyahu-led government without the other. Barring any radical repainting of the current political picture, Netanyahu needs the support of at least one of them to achieve a parliamentary majority.
“My word is my bond,” Bennett wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday, promising to keep to his all-or-nothing pact with Lapid.
That position is effectively keeping religious parties out of a potential cabinet, dashing Netanyahu’s hopes for a broad coalition including proven allies that backed his policies while receiving generous state funding for religious institutions.
“The main reason I have not finished forming a government is because there is a boycott of a sector in Israel, and this is unacceptable from my perspective,” Netanyahu said on Saturday, accusing Lapid and Bennett of blackballing the ultra-Orthodox.