Israel Coalition Talks: Bennett's Party Moves to Head Off Netanyahu’s Bid to Find Deserters

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Ayelet Shaked attends a Yamina meeting as Naftali Bennett gives a statement, last month.
Ayelet Shaked attends a Yamina meeting as Naftali Bennett gives a statement, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Four Yamina lawmakers have issued statements confirming their loyalty to their leader Naftali Bennett, as the party braced for a Likud offensive to persuade more of its members to defect.

New lawmakers Abir Kara, Idit Silman and Nir Orbach rejected the generous offers they had received in recent days from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoys in exchange for defecting from their party and preventing Bennett, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and their allies from forming a government.

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The three lawmakers, whom Likud targeted as “weak links,” stated they would support Bennett’s efforts to form a unity government.

“There’s no need to make speeches and send envoys with proposals,” Orbach said. “In politics too, loyalty and friendship are important values.”

Veteran Yamina lawmaker Matan Kahana also expressed his support for Bennett, writing on Facebook that "it's time for a unity government." 

Orbach, Bennett’s confidant, has been subjected to steamroller pressure recently to quit Yamina, including street posters and demonstrations. Addressing Netanyahu, he said, “I believe with all my heart the way to a fifth election round, which you’re trying to lead to, is a dead end for Israel. We’re ideological enough and rightist enough to protect everything that’s important to us.”

Silman said similar things and described the coalition Bennett and Lapid are working on as “a good government for Israel.”

She commended Bennett’s effort to cooperate with various parts of the Israeli public.

Likud figures said in recent weeks that they believed they could enlist Kara because he had entered the Knesset to advance the self-employed community. Kara said this week he received proposals to become a minister and advance any issue he saw fit regarding the self-employed. But Kara rejected the offer and instead blasted Netanyahu.

“You failed to take care of self-employed people and small business owners. You failed in forming a government. Instead of setting your mind to forming a right-wing government, you were busy reviling and abusing Bennett,” he said.

Likud denied making him any offer.

The coordinated statements issued by the three are part of a tactical move Yamina is taking to foil defections and convey a public message that the party is united behind the difficult decision to join the center and left bloc.

“This move enables Yamina to upset Netanyahu and make him see he has nobody to work with on the one hand, while fixating the MKs marked as shaky with public statements that will stop them from any thought of defecting,” a party source said.

After failing to assemble a government, Netanyahu is focusing on two goals. One is to prevent Bennett and Lapid from forming a government and the other is to disperse the Knesset and have a fifth election round.

“The coalition talks must be quick. Any waste of time will give Netanyahu another chance to harm Yamina and the possibility to form a majority,” a source familiar with the coalition negotiations said.

“We want to reach an agreement by next week, but it’s not at all clear if this is possible,” he said.

In the past few days Netanyahu has launched a dramatic pressure campaign on Yamina’s lawmakers, in a bid to persuade at least two of them to cross the line and thus prevent the required majority for a unity government.

Yamina members prefer not to be supported by the Joint List alliance of Arab parties and it’s not clear how many of the latter party’s Knesset members would agree to vote for a government headed by the rightist Bennett. Presumably, if two or more Yamina and New Hope lawmakers object to a unity government, supporters will have to be obtained from the Joint List to enable swearing it in.

“The starting point is that there won’t be any deserters from Gideon Sa’ar’s party, whose voters knew from the start that he prefers a coalition with the center parties than to join Netanyahu,” a source engaged in the efforts to take the bloc apart said.

“Yamina’s MKs pledged in the election not to make Yair Lapid prime minister and not to sit with Meretz, so they should have no problem to object such a government now,” he said.

Only one Yamina lawmaker has so far bent to the pressure from the right. “Let me be clear. I’ll vote against a government together with the Joint List and Meretz, just as we promised the voters,” tweeted Amichai Chikli on Thursday. Netanyahu immediately called him a hero.

“Chikli’s move is brave and necessary,” Netanyahu said at the opening of Likud’s caucus meeting on Thursday. “Like Chikli , so must Ayelet Shaked and other Yamina members do the right thing and not join a dangerous leftist government.”

“If Yamina’s MKs really want to form a rightist government they must announce that they’ll vote against a government with Lapid and the left just as they promised in the election,” Netanyahu said. “If Ayelet Shaked does anything else she will lose everything. If they do it, I and you know that we’ll form a rightist government without another election because other MKs from the right will join us.”

Sources close to Bennett believe they have succeeded in blocking any other defections, at least for the time being, and are bracing for Likud’s campaign to pressure various lawmakers, especially Shaked. Six of Yamina’s seven members, all except Chikli, support the efforts to form a unity government. People in the bloc supporting a unity government believe that if Shaked defects to Netanyahu, the chance to make a coalition would be destroyed. In such circumstances Bennett would no longer be the favorite candidate for prime minister and Sa’ar would take precedence.

But a senior bloc member said Shaked has accepted her being part of the next government, in which she has been promised a senior post.

“Shaked wants the Justice Ministry, but it will probably go to Gideon Sa’ar. Presumably she’ll settle for the public security portfolio, in which she can also make a difference. Throughout the election campaign she kept stating that Netanyahu must be replaced. Now she can put her money where her mouth is,” he said.

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