Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked political allies in a meeting on Thursday to push the talking point that Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett would be unable to stand up to President Biden on Iran or fend off U.S. pressure on the Palestinian issue, sources who attended the meeting tell me.
Why it matters: Bennett and centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid sealed a coalition agreement to replace Netanyahu on Wednesday, but the vote to swear in the new government might not come until next Wednesday. They will have to keep their wobbly alliance together until then as Netanyahu attempts to sabotage it.
- Netanyahu is trying to exert as much pressure as possible on members of Bennett's right-wing Yamina party to refuse to vote for the new government. Even one defection would put Lapid and Bennett at risk of failing to obtain the required parliamentary majority.
- The government-in-waiting includes eight parties united by little other than a desire to remove Netanyahu. It was made possible by the unprecedented decision of the Islamist Ra'am party — which would be the first Arab party to enter an Israeli government — to unite with Bennett and Lapid.
Behind the scenes: In Thursday's meeting, Netanyahu told members of his right-wing bloc and settler leaders that Bennett would fold if the U.S. demanded a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, according to a source who attended the meeting.
- Netanyahu also pointed out that he had declared earlier this week that Israel would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon even at the cost of tensions with the Biden administration. "Will Bennett be able to do that?" he asked.
- The other side: In an interview with Israel's Channel 12, Bennett stressed the importance of good relations with the Biden administration but said he would not agree to a settlement freeze and would stand firm when it comes to Israel’s security.
- Worth noting: Netanyahu himself agreed to a partial settlement freeze during Barack Obama's presidency.
The state of play: Netanyahu and his supporters are focusing their pressure on Nir Orbach, a member of Bennett’s party who said on Wednesday that he was considering voting against the new government.
- Netanyahu shared social media posts calling on his supporters to demonstrate outside of Orbach’s house on Thursday. Orbach’s rabbi also hinted in a television interview that Netanyahu had asked him to press Orbach not to support the government.
- Bennett met with Orbach and his wife for three hours on Thursday and urged him to vote against the government. After the meeting, Orbach tweeted that he supports Bennett but didn’t say how he would vote. One option he is reportedly considering is resigning before the vote.
The big picture: Bennett, a tech entrepreneur and former Netanyahu protege, would become prime minister despite only winning seven seats in the election.
- He was able to play the kingmaker role in the scramble to form a government, with both Netanyahu and Lapid needing his support.
- While he is a conservative, particularly on Israel-Palestine issues, he would be constrained by the broad range of parties in the coalition and the fact that Lapid will have a veto on his policies.
What to watch: If the government does come together it will likely be highly fragile. Netanyahu would be expected to become opposition leader.