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Lapid rules out coalition with Likud while Netanyahu in power: ‘Death of decency’

Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday said he would be prepared to join a coalition with Likud, but not while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to lead the party.

“Not while Netanyahu is there,” Lapid told the Ynet news site after being asked about the possibility, mooted in recent days both in order to help eject the far-right from the coalition and to support a potential normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.

“That is because I am a decent man, and that would be the death of decency,” he said.

“In Israel, there needs to be an opposition to corruption. In the end, it is not the man, but what he brings to the national table,” Lapid said. “He has lost all concern with the national interest; he is only concerned with his own interests.”

“I am the first one who would set up a coalition with Likud, but it’s impossible with Netanyahu,” he said, referring to the premier’s ongoing corruption trial.

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Speculation has mounted in recent days that Netanyahu or other moderate elements in Likud could try to set up an alternative coalition in a bid to halt his far-right partners’ push to move ahead with the rest of the contentious judicial overhaul.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (R) at the Knesset on June 7, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

National Unity MK Michael Biton told Army Radio on Sunday that his faction could prop up Netanyahu’s coalition from the opposition, to counterbalance the premier’s far-right partners.

“A unity government is not on the table, but maybe support from the outside,” he said. “If Netanyahu brings good things to Israel we’ll back him from outside, but won’t join the government.”

In the interview,  Lapid repeated comments that he made Sunday in the Knesset, asserting that he had been close to an agreement with Netanyahu to halt the “reasonableness” legislation passed last week, but that the prime minister was ultimately overruled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin of Likud and far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir.

“The president [Isaac Herzog] and I felt that there were agreements that would have saved us from what really happened, from the anti-democratic law that was passed. Why did the agreements blow up? Because at the last minute, Levin and Ben Gvir entered Netanyahu’s room, banged on the table and he fled,” Lapid said.

Lapid said he was still conducting talks with several members of Likud to push them to oppose further legislation.

He also reiterated his call for an 18-month freeze on legislation aimed at overhauling the judiciary as a condition for his Yesh Atid party to return to negotiations with the coalition on judicial reforms.

Yesh Atid and fellow opposition party National Unity walked away from floundering compromise talks in June, alleging the coalition had acted in bad faith on a related issue: its efforts to avoid staffing and convening the committee that elects new judges, allegedly in a bid to wait until the composition of the panel could be changed in order to give the government more influence.

Shortly after the law banning judicial review of the “reasonableness” of cabinet or ministerial decisions passed last Monday, Netanyahu opened the window for compromise until November, a month after the Knesset returns from recess. Netanyahu said he hoped to achieve broad consensus for his next tranche of judicial reforms.

In the interview, Lapid was also asked about the possibility of supporting a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia if it meant backing Riyadh’s right to enrich uranium.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meet at the White House on May 18, 2022. (Khalid bin Salman/Twitter)

“There is no Israeli prime minister, and I hope that includes Netanyahu, who would be able to agree to such a thing,” said Lapid, who held US-mediated contacts with the Saudis when he was prime minister last year.

“It’s totally against Israel’s strategy, which we have upheld all these years… We will not agree to any countries in the region enriching uranium,” Lapid said. “Uranium enrichment on Saudi soil would push the whole Middle East into a nuclear race. Israel can’t agree to this.”

Netanyahu has long sought what is seen as an elusive normalization deal with the Saudis, repeatedly describing it as one of the top priorities of his new government and one that could lead to an end to both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the prospects of a normalization deal appear increasingly unlikely due to the influential far-right elements in Netanyahu’s government. A New York Times report on Saturday, citing an Israeli official, said that a normalization deal would require “significant concessions” to the Palestinians that are unlikely to be approved by the current hardline coalition and that Netanyahu may be required to seek the formation of a unity government.