Israeli PM Netanyahu says would stand aside for a year to avoid 'left-wing' government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaking with Naftali Bennett in a file photo taken on Nov 24, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday (May 3) 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.

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.

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