Netanyahu's Far-right Ally Blasts Attempt to Form Government With Arabs

Netanyahu turns the heat up on New Hope leader as Smotrich maintains refusal to sit with United Arab List

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Bezalel Smotrich the Israeli transportation minister arrives to attend a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 24, 2019
Bezalel Smotrich as the Israeli transportation minister in 2019Credit: POOL/ REUTERS
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The chairman of the Religious Zionism party, Bezalel Smotrich, said on Sunday that he prefers a coalition government that includes both Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid rather than a right-wing government that is reliant on the support of the United Arab List.

“Even a fifth election is much preferable to such suicide,” he wrote. “In my estimation, such a hybrid creature," he said, referring to a Bennett-Lapid government, "also won’t be established and if it does, then it would last a few months and crash and the right would return big time. That’s preferable to destroying the right wing and Zionism.”

Members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle have told Haaretz they don’t expect a breakthrough this week that will enable the prime minister to form a government.

“As in the past, this time too the formation of the government will take place at the last minute,” said a close associate of Netanyahu’s who is involved in the coalition negotiations behind the scenes. In the absence of defectors from the anti-Netanyahu camp, the prime minister is expected to turn up the pressure on Smotrich to join a coalition that is supported by the United Arab List.

Smotrich has not been swayed. On Friday he reiterated his refusal to be part of a government that is dependent on the votes of lawmakers from the Islamist party. “If Likud fails in its mission to form a nationalist government, it will be because it is wasting the precious days of its mandate in dangerous and hopeless directions,” Smotrich warned. “I will not lend a hand to the suicide of the right and of Israel in the establishment of a reckless government ...that would be dependent on anti-Zionist supporters of terror and would turn all of us into its hostages,” Smotrich added.

Writing on Twitter Friday, Smotrich warned that a Netanyahu-led government that relies on the UAL would strengthen “the religious-extremist forces in Arab society at the expense of the moderate forces with which there is a chance of reaching coexistence on the basis of abandoning their national aspirations and creating a civil dialogue.”

Netanyahu and Sa'ar, 2016.Credit: Uriel Sinai/AP

Smotrich went on to liken the UAL’s presumed strengthening in the event of its involvement in the next governing coalition to the strengthening of Hamas in the Gaza Strip under Israel’s patronage. “Netanyahu promised again and again during the election campaign not to establish a government that relies on [United Arab List chairman Mansour] Abbas, and I don’t imagine that he would even consider breaking this promise and forming a government based on dangerous and anti-Zionist supporters of terror,” Smotrich wrote.

Lacking other options, Netanyahu changed his tactics temporarily and focused his public pressure on the head of the New Hope party. If Gideon Sa’ar, the former Likudnik,who was the target of a personal campaign of humiliation by Netanyahu ahead of the March 23 election, switches sides and joins the prime minister, a stable right-wing government could be established without reliance on the UAL. “Israel needs a strong government, a stable, right-wing government that can last for years,” Netanyahu said at an Independence Day event held by Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish in Ramat Gan Friday.

“Such a government could be put together very quickly,” the prime minister added. “So I call on Bezalel Smotrich, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar: “Let’s put all other considerations aside and establish the right-wing, nationalist government that Israel so desperately needs... I call here to Gideon Sa’ar: Likud is your home. You grew up in this home. You will be welcomed here with open arms.” Sa’ar has long insisted that he would not join a government led by Netanyahu, and figures in Likud say he’s very unlikely to change his mind. The prime minister’s appeal to him was mainly a tactical maneuver meant to prove to Smotrich that the only option is relying on the vote of Mansour Abbas.

Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett said publicly last Monday that he planned to join a Netanyahu-led coalition. “Likud can count on ...Yamina’s lawmakers in forming a right-wing government,” Bennett said during a Knesset Yamina caucus meeting. But in conversations with associates, he has said the odds of establishing such a coalition are very low. Bennett gave much higher odds to an anti-Netanyahu coalition led by Bennett himself that would include the left-wing parties but whose character would be moderate-right.

Bennett’s public embrace of Netanyahu last week was a tactical move aimed at signaling to his voters on the right that the only option he was considering was a Likud-led government, and if it failed to materialize Smotrich would be to blame. Bennett insists he will not be the cause of a fifth election, preparing the ground for his possible entry into a so-called government of change in about three weeks.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who has been criticized for disappearing from public view recently, plans to go public this week with his efforts to form a government. He met with Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz Saturday evening and is expected to meet with the heads of the rest of the parties in the anti-Netanyahu camp, as well as to talk up the unity government he plans to establish with Bennett. Figures in New Hope and in Meretz questioned Lapid’s behavior last week, saying they feared he preferred a fifth election over forming a coalition. “I got the impression that Lapid isn’t there,” said a source in New Hope, adding “there were a few anxious days before he made his position clear.” A Meretz MK said: “Lapid doesn’t have that excitement in his eyes. It doesn’t look as if he wants to be prime minister at all.”

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