Netanyahu Turns on Bennett, Asks Rabbis Not to Support Him in Secret Talks

Netanyahu tells rabbis that Bennett will ally with his chief rival, Benny Gantz, in a bid to gain their backing and ensure a wide, 61-member coalition after the March 2 election

Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett in 2016.
Gil Eliahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has secretly met with right-wing rabbis in an attempt to persuade them to withdraw their support for Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Hayamin Hehadash party, in Israel's March 2 election.

According to sources familiar with the contents of the meeting, Netanyahu had told the rabbis that Bennett would ally with his chief rival, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, after the election and therefore should not be trusted.

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Last week Netanyahu changed his campaign strategy from ignoring the right-wing parties to launching a full-on offensive. Likud analysts feel the right-wing bloc does not have a chance at winning 61 Knesset seats with the ultra-Orthodox, and now their objective is to become the largest party so as to improve their bargaining position in any unity government coalition negotiated after the election.

In recent days, Netanyahu's Likud and Bennett's right-wing alliance Yamina have exchanged many public verbal blows about the issues of annexation and policy toward Gaza. But simultaneously, the prime minister has also begun to secretly meet with nationalist rabbis, some of whom have updated the right-wing leaders of Netanyahu's change in direction.

On Sunday evening, after returning from an election rally, Netanyahu met with Rabbi Eliyahu Zinny of Haifa, who in past elections supported Habayit Hayehudi. In their meeting, Netanyahu reportedly said that Bennett can’t be trusted and that after the election he will break up Yamina and join a minority government with Gantz. Netanyahu told the rabbi that the only way to prevent such a step is for Likud to become a larger party than Kahol Lavan, and that in any case he would make sure religious Zionist institutions are not harmed in the negotiations.

On Monday, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted in an apparent jab at Netanyahu: “Can someone explain the strategy of the nationalist camp’s leader, who instead of trying to enlarge the right-wing block to 61 seats chooses to shoot inside the armored personnel carrier and attack their most natural allies!”

Regardless, inquests done by Yamina showed that Netanyahu’s popularity among their voters is very high, and they are wondering how to handle the remainder of the campaign.

The Likud stated in response: “The only way to ensure a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu is by voting only for the Likud. Gantz cannot establish a government. The only option Gantz would have to establish a government is either with Ahmed Tibi and Ayman Odeh [Arab alliance Joint List lawmakers] or via a fourth round of elections.”