Bennett, left out of government, accuses Netanyahu of ‘surrendering to the left’

National religious alliance head claims Netanyahu only wants ‘weak’ coalition partners; Likud claims Bennett dragging party to opposition because he wasn’t named health minister

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Naftali Bennett (L), Ayelet Shaked (R) and Bezalel Smotrich (C) of the Yamina party hold a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Naftali Bennett (L), Ayelet Shaked (R) and Bezalel Smotrich (C) of the Yamina party hold a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett claimed Thursday evening that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was never authentically interested in bringing his party into the coalition and that the Likud leader had “surrendered to the left” by ‘erasing” a commitment to West Bank annexation from the new government’s formal platform.

“There is nothing because there was nothing,” said Bennett, employing a phrase Netanyahu often uses to downplay the criminal cases against him to describe the lack of seriousness with which the premier entered coalition negotiations with Yamina.

“From the very first moment, there were no real negotiations from Netanyahu’s side to bring us into the government,” the Yamina chairman added during a press conference with most of his fellow faction members. (Yamina member Rafi Peretz is set to join the coalition.) “I say this to the Likudniks who are being pressured [on this matter]: It’s all spin.”

Bennett, the outgoing minister of defense, strenuously denied reports that Yamina was still in talks Netanyahu to join the government after its swearing-in ceremony was delayed from Thursday night to Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Defense Minister and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a meeting with the heads of right-wing parties in the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He said that his party didn’t initially plan to join the opposition but was thoroughly prepared for it and would do so with its “head held high” because, had it served in the coalition with the incoming “left-wing” government, Yamina would have been forced to fall in line with policies that it ideologically opposes.

Bennett claimed Netanyahu “erased sovereignty” from the coalition platform, which “they published like thieves in the night” late Wednesday. “He erased the words Judea and Samaria from the platform.”

“Maybe it offended the sensibilities” of [Blue and White chairman Benny] Gantz and other leftists, he suggested.

Netanyahu “promised for a year, time and again, that he would extend full sovereignty to all settlements in Judea and Samaria. That wasn’t an election promise. It was the election promise of Netanyahu. But in the last few days the Palestinian Authority threatened that if it appeared in the platform, they’d break off contacts,” Bennett continued, without providing proof of such a threat by Ramallah.

(From L-R) Yamina MKs Matan Kahana, Bezalel Smotrich, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Ofir Sofer at a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett added that the European Union and above all Gantz and [Blue and White MK Gabi] Ashkenazi also threatened him. “So Netanyahu surrendered, and erased sovereignty from the platform.”

The Yamina leader said Netanyahu had also abandoned all plans for reforms to curb the power of the Supreme Court.

“He wants weak political midgets at his side” — and not a “strong… principled right like us,” Bennett charged.

“He’s splintered away from religious and secular Zionism — from the people who were the most loyal to him,” he said.

Yamina, Bennett continued, will be a potent, “courageous” alternative to Netanyahu’s government.

Speaking after Bennett, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, added that  Netanyahu “sold Salah al-Din Street” in East Jerusalem, where the Justice Ministry is located, to the political left. Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn is to be the new justice minister.

Bennett and Shaked both worked at the Prime Minister’s Office for Netanyahu, but have long since fallen out with him.

From left to right: Yamina party members Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz at an event in the Elkana settlement on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

Notably, Bennett made no mention during his press conference of MK Peretz, who is bolting the national religious alliance to join the government following a promise from Netanyahu to be appointed Jerusalem affairs minister. Likud sources told The Times of Israel that the premier has since sought to walk back that promise because he had already offered the position to Likud MK David Amsalem.

Likud responded to the Yamina press conference by deriding Bennett, saying all his complaints stem from the fact that Netanyahu chose not to give him the post of health minister.

“While Prime Minister Netanyahu applies sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, as promised and as it appears in coalition agreements, Bennett will spend his time in the opposition with [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] Lapid, [Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor] Lieberman and [Joint List MK Heba] Yazbak. The era of Bennett is over,” Likud declared in a statement.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Thursday press conference came a day after the two sides again declared that their talks had failed to bear fruit.

Bennett and Netanyahu were scheduled to meet in person on Wednesday evening but ended up speaking by phone, with Yamina charging that the Prime Minister’s Office was “unwilling” to schedule a face-to-face meeting.

“In the conversation the prime minister said Likud’s offer hasn’t changed and won’t change. The offer is the Jerusalem affairs portfolio, a deputy minister with responsibility for national service and settlement, half of the [Knesset] immigration committee chairmanship and another minister,” a statement from Bennett’s spokesperson said.

Netanyahu’s Likud party countered that the premier had also offered the Education Ministry or a “senior economic portfolio” of Bennett’s choosing and described the phone call as a “final effort” to bring Yamina into the new government before it is sworn in on Thursday.

Yamina has been a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc over the past two elections, though the premier and Bennett are widely seen to have a fraught relationship.

Since the national religious slate began declaring that it was heading to the opposition as early as last week, settler leaders have spoken out against the move, urging both sides to reconsider and voicing concerns that a divided right-wing bloc would offer a less united front to advance West Bank annexation.

However, Yamina’s withdrawal does ease Netanyahu’s difficulties within Likud, where a large number of senior MKs are competing for a smaller number of ministries than in the last government. By the terms of the coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz, half the 32 cabinet posts of the new government must go to the Blue and White leader’s bloc of 19 MKs and half to Netanyahu’s bloc of 59.

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