Netanyahu Pressures Far-right Ally, Prepares for Yet Another Israeli Election

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a Religious Zionism meeting at the Knesset this week.
Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a Religious Zionism meeting at the Knesset this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Since President Reuven Rivlin tasked him Tuesday with forming the next government, Benjamin Netanyahu has not been able to put together a coalition of parties to form a government.

The prime minister met Thursday with Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett to discuss the possibility of future cooperation. Despite the animus between the two, the meeting was held in good spirits. Bennett expressed that in principle, he is willing to join a right-wing government in partnership with Netanyahu, although at the moment the prime minister does not have the majority he needs to make this possible.

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This week, Likud will continue to pressure Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Religious Zionism party, as well as rabbis and other members of his inner circle, over his refusal to join a coalition that would be supported by the United Arab List.

Prior to their meeting, Bennett had said that the prime minister’s chances of forming a coalition are slim. He remains on the fence: He aspires to the prime minister's office, whether that be as part of a coalition with Netanyahu or with the premier’s rivals.

Bennett says he would prefer to join an entirely right-wing government and is prepared to link up with Netanyahu if the prime minister can cobble together a majority to that end. But Bennett believes the chances of forming a stable right-wing government are low. If Netanyahu fails, Bennett will push for a “right-wing lite” rotational government, eventually swapping the top post with Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid.

For now, at least, Bennett would prefer partnering with Lapid over going to a fifth general election in just over two years. In the former scenario, the Yamina party head would try to contain potential damage to his image on the right as a result of allying with leftist parties by racking up accomplishments for Yamina, such as staffing key ministerial posts that would pave the way to a center-right government.

Alongside attempts to establish a stable government, over the next few days, Netanyahu is expected to examine the possibility of establishing a minority government that would rely on outside support from both the United Arab List and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. This will allow Smotrich to keep his promise to voters not to join a coalition whose stability depends on Arab lawmakers, without endangering the possibility of establishing a fully right-wing government under Netanyahu.

This would not be a stable government, but a fragile coalition that might soon crumble. But establishing this minority government will allow Netanyahu to achieve major goals. For one, it would immediately lift the key political millstone around Netanyahu’s neck – the November date for him to step down as prime minister in favor of Kahol Lavan Chairman and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The rotation agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan remains in force until a new government is established.

This unstable government would also increase the chances that, when it falls, most of the parties will prefer a new election rather than supporting an alternative coalition based on the current Knesset.

Likud officials were reassured by an interview given by Religious Zionism’s Itamar Ben-Gvir to the Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat, in which he declined to rule out a scenario in which his party would support a Netanyahu government from the outside that at the same time relied on support by Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List. Ben-Gvir called such a government “hypothetical” and an “old wives’ tale,” but he did not pledge to vote against it. However, he added: “There is only one option for establishing a government: Not with Mansour Abbas. Abbas is a terrorist. I will not join, will not support or be assisted by Mansour Abbas.”

At the same time, Likud is already preparing for the possibility that none of the sides will be able to form a coalition and the Knesset will disband within a few weeks. Likud MK Shlomo Karhi presented a bill last week to abolish the rotation government with Kahol Lavan. it is intended to thwart the appointment of Gantz as prime minister in November, even without the establishment of a new government. It is believed that quite a few MKs, on both the right and the left, might support such a law out of their desire to prevent Gantz from taking the helm.

Karhi posted a film clip on social media in which Lapid can be heard, right after Yesh Atid and Kahol Lavan split, pledging to support such initiatives if Netanyahu presents them in the Knesset. “At any given moment that Bibi doesn’t feel like doing the rotation, and after all, he won’t want to do it, all he needs to do is to come to me and say ‘we want to go back to the original wording of the law,’” Lapid said at the time. “We’ll say yes. We’ll agree to go back to the original form of these laws and you’ll manage, because we respect democracy and these terrible and shameful laws should be abolished.”

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