If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party goes into the opposition following the results of last month's Knesset election, United Torah Judaism will go with it, its chairman Moshe Gafni, said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu called on Yamina leader Naftali Bennett to "announce by the evening whether he supports direct vote" for prime minister, a move floated by another Netanyahu ally, Shas' Arye Dery, in a bid to resolve the ongoing political stalemate. Netanyahu arged "If Bennett wants a right-wing government," he should support the initiative.
Gafni's party would stick with Likud and not change its mind, the ultra-Orthodox party leader vowed in an interview with Kan Bet public radio, apparently signaling no breakthough so far in Netanyahu's attempts to form a coalition.
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“It's not as if when it’s convenient for us, we're here, and when it’s not convenient, we’re there," Gafni said. "If necessary, we'll go into the opposition, as [we did with] the government in which Yair Lapid was finance minister and [Naftali] Bennett was education minister," referring respectively to the current leaders of Yesh Atid and Yamina.
Even if Bennett, as a potential prime minister in a new coalition government, offered United Torah Judaism a commitment to maintain the status quo on religious issues, the party would still prefer to go into opposition, Gafni said. “Our position is unambiguous, and it's not subject to change based on the mood or prevailing reality,” he said.
During the campaign leading up to the March election, Bennett refused to commit whether he would join a government headed by Netanyahu or join a coalition of anti-Netanyahu parties. As part of the prime minister's continuing effort to form a new government, Netanyahu met on Tuesday at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem with Bezalel Smotrich, the chairman of the Religious Zionism party. At least for now, Smotrich is standing in the way of a coalition government headed by Netanyahu that is reliant on the support of the United Arab List party.
Netanyahu said at a press conference on Tuesday that "the United Arab list is not what is needed, but rather a direct vote to form a government. There are only two options: a left-wing government with internal divisions, contrary to promises made by Naftali Bennett and to the will of the public, or direct elections for a right-wing government. This is the answer our problems."
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In the course of Netanyahu's meeting with Smotrich, Likud issued a statement accusing Bennett of “galloping into a left-wing government with Meretz and Labor with the support of the Joint List. Anyone wanting a right-wing government," the statement said, "wouldn't conduct negotiations with [the left] on dividing up positions for [Meretz's] Nitzan Horowitz [and the Labor Party's] Merav Michaeli and Ibtisam Mara’ana.”
In remarks at a conference on Tuesday, Bennett's Yamina party colleague Ayelet Shaked said, “our goal and desire is to establish a right-wing government. We told Netanyahu – we are willing to make every effort to help you establish a government – and we are making such major efforts, but we have also said repeatedly that we will not let the country be dragged into a fifth election.”
On Monday, the anti-Netanyahu bloc won a key vote to determine the composition of the Knesset Arrangements Committee. The committee is responsible for setting the Knesset agenda during the transitional period between the election and the formation of a new government. The committee controls which bills come to a Knesset vote during the current period, giving the committee major influence.
Shortly before Monday's vote, Yamina reached an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party to vote in favor of its formula for representation on the committee, but the proposal failed to pass when the United Arab List voted against it, resulting in a 60 to 58 vote against. Yamina's lawmakers then left the Knesset chamber rather than voting on the alternate proposal.
The United Arab List, which has refused to commit to support either the anti-Netanyahu bloc or a Netanyahu-led coalition government, voted against the Likud proposal and in favor of the formula for representation proposed by the anti-Netanyahu bloc. United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas said after the vote that "only those who accept our demands will win our support."
The United Arab List's decision to vote against the Likud proposal was agreed upon during a meeting with Lapid earlier in the day. In exchange, Abbas was promised a spot on the Knesset Finance Committee, the role of deputy Knesset speaker and the creation of a new committee to address violent crime in the Arab community.
In its vote, the United Arab List sought to protest was it said was its perception that Netanyahu was taking the party's support for granted – as well as a last-minute arrangement between Bennett and Netanyahu that would have handed Yamina an advantage over the United Arab List on the Arrangements Committee. Abbas also sought to protest what he described as Netanyahu’s caving into pressure from the Religious Zionism party, which has called the United Arab List “a party that supports terrorism.”
Abbas alleged that members of Religious Zionism were inciting and making false accusations against him. “Under no circumstances will we accept a situation in which they accuse us of terrorism. We've come to represent the Arab community. Anyone seeking to scuttle efforts on behalf of all citizens, and the Arabs in particular, can meet us in court – or find us against them.”