After Blasting 'Weak' Netanyahu, Right-wing Minister 'Sorry for Things That Shouldn't Have Been Said'

Speaking at party's campaign launch, Bezalel Smotrich insisted court ruling blocking gender-segregated events 'disgraces' Judaism, but apologized for harsh comments

Bezalel Smotrich as a campaign event of his Yamina slate.
Moti Milrod מוטי מילרוד

Israel's Transportation Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, publicly apologized on Monday for calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "a weak prime minister."

Smotrich told a crowd of supporters at his right-wing slate's campaign launch that "things were said in a way that shouldn't have been uttered, especially not in the relationship between a prime minister and a minister in his government, and I feel sorry about that."

Smotrich went on to say that ministers from Netanyahu's Likud party should also stop attacking Smotrich himself and refrain from treating him with disrespect, as the transporation minister was accused of behaving toward the prime minister.

On Sunday, Smotrich lashed out on Twitter at a ruling by a Nazareth District Court judge that barred the Afula municipality from carrying out gender separation at an event for the ultra-Orthodox community in a public park. Smotrich called the judicial system "stupid" and said Netanyahu constituted  "Zero leadership. Zero governability."

But speaking Monday at the campaign event in a Tel Aviv suburb, Smotrich remained critical of the Nazareth court, saying that its ruling in the Afula case "disgraces Judaism and anyone who believes in its values. It forces re-education on myself and on hundreds of thousands of citizens." His comments on Twitter, he said, "were pain erupting in a shout."

Before the campaign launch, Smotrich's United Right alliance, led by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, announced that it has changed its name to Yamina ("rightward" in Hebrew), saying "Right is what the public wants but doesn't get every election. We're going to steer the ship in that direction."

At Monday's event, Shaked said: "Over the past four years, we've proven that we're the only right-wing [slate] that is unafraid to turn its ideology into a work plan, that doesn't betray its values," which she said includes "settlement in all parts of Israel, including Judea and Samaria," referring to the West Bank.

"Only together can we work to legalize settlement in Judea and Samaria once and for all," she said. "Only together can we open up the High Court to other voices; only together can we maintain Jewish tradition…against the cynical alliance between [Avigdor] Lieberman and [Yair] Lapid; only together can we build a free, blooming economy, free of the power of labor unions and the rule of monopolies." 

"I'm aiming as high as I can for the country's leadership," Shaked added. "Without a strong, large ideological right wing, Likud would form a government with the left."

The joint slate now known as Yamina was set up two weeks ago when Shaked and her party colleague Naftali Bennett of Hayamin Hehadash joined forces with the Union of Right-Wing Parties, after the latter's chairman, Rafi Peretz, agreed to let Shaked take the helm of the unified ticket.

On Sunday, Culture Minister Miri Regev of Netanyahu’s Likud party called on Smotrich to apologize for his comments about the prime minister. “Smotrich, you should be ashamed of yourself!’ she tweeted.

Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, whose current election campaign has been aimed in large measure at criticizing ultra-Orthodox and religious parties, tweeted that Smotrich’s comments regarding the event in Afula and his support for an Israel governed by religious law are “the reason that Yisrael Beitenu won’t sit in a government with Smotrich....”

Smotrich, who is 39, is the leader of the far-right National Union faction of Yamina and is No. 3 on Yamina's slate of candidates in the Knesset election scheduled for September 17. He was appointed transportation minister in June, following last April's election, and was also appointed to the security cabinet.