As party heads quarrel days before vote, Bennett calls for broad unity government

Former PM, who’s not running in next week’s election, urges calming of discourse; Smotrich says his shortened military service should not disqualify him from being defense minister

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 23, 2022. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)
Former prime minister Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 23, 2022. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Thursday for the formation of a broad unity government after next week’s elections, as quarreling between party heads escalated five days before Israel goes to the polls.

Stopping to speak to reporters before entering a cabinet meeting, Bennett called on all parties and leaders to remain respectful of each other in the run-up to the November 1 vote.

“Immediately after the election, the correct thing for the State of Israel is to establish a broad unity government based on the largest parties on the left and right and then to bring in all the parties that recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.

“We can’t have losers in this election. All of the people of Israel can win. At this time we are in need of unity.”

Such a government appears unlikely, with multiple parties continuing to refuse to sit with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption. He denies the charges.

Netanyahu is leading in the polls ahead of the vote, with his Likud party and its allies seen heading for some 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, on the cusp of a majority.

Bennett stepped down as prime minister in June after his coalition fell apart around its one-year anniversary. His ally Yair Lapid, of the Yesh Atid party, then took over as PM.

The Yamina chairman saw his political support plummet almost immediately when he agreed to join the anti-Netanyahu bloc after the previous election.

He never recovered in the polls, and announced soon after elections were called that he would be stepping down from politics.

Also on Thursday, Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich told the Ynet news site that he believes he’s ready to serve as defense minister in the next government, despite only completing a shortened military service and having no combat experience.

Chairman of the Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich presents his party’s ‘Law and Justice’ program during a press conference in Kfar Maccabiah in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The issue of lawmakers’ military services has made headlines in recent days, with Prime Minister Lapid defending his service as a reporter for the IDF’s news magazine, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz asserting that Smotrich shouldn’t be given the post given his lack of combat experience.

Smotrich told Ynet he served for 14 months as an enlisted man in the operations division of the General Staff after being conscripted at the age of 28. (Mandatory military service is routinely some three years.)

Smotrich has said his party would seek top offices in a potential Netanyahu government, including defense and finance.

Netanyahu said in recent days such portfolios must go to Likud.

“I can be defense minister,” Smotrich said. “My service prepared me more than many other things.”

“It’s true, I didn’t get to be a combat fighter, and I didn’t run around on the hills, but I was in the nerve center of the army, in the general headquarters. In the places where they sit and manage the army, make the decisions, and write the operational plans. I played a very significant role there that I cannot and do not want to detail,” Smotrich said.

The current defense minister, Benny Gantz, previously served as IDF chief of staff, and the role has traditionally been held by former top army commanders.

But there have been a few defense ministers without significant military experience, including Avigdor Liberman.

Separately on Thursday, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni reignited a debate on whether Netanyahu had sought to form a coalition with the Islamist Ra’am party after the last election.

Netanyahu was widely reported to have held intensive negotiations with Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas, though he continues to deny that it was about forming a government.

In recently leaked recordings, Smotrich said Netanyahu had indeed sought to form a government with Ra’am, saying the Likud leader was “lying through his teeth” on the matter.

Gafni told the Walla news site that Netanyahu and Abbas discussed having Ra’am support the coalition from the opposition, but that an agreement was never reached because Smotrich refused to go along with the idea.

“I believe that Netanyahu wanted support from the outside, not a coalition,” Gafni said.

Gafni said he thinks Smotrich made a mistake, and that in the end, this led to “a very bad” government.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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