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Yamina MK: I prefer Islamists over Labor, Meretz

Declaring support for Bennett, Yamina MKs allege strong Likud pressure to defect

In bid to prevent Lapid forming government, Netanyahu calls on right-wing rivals to block a ‘left-wing’ coalition with Yesh Atid, vows he is ‘not going anywhere’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yamina chair Naftali Bennett (C) and party members seen with supporters at a party event in Petah Tikva after election day, March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Yamina chair Naftali Bennett (C) and party members seen with supporters at a party event in Petah Tikva after election day, March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

As he works to prevent the formation of an alternative government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been attempting to persuade Yamina Knesset members to defect from the party and declare their opposition to entering a coalition with left-wing factions, a number of Yamina lawmakers said Thursday.

One Yamina MK, Amichai Chikli, has said that he will vote against a government that includes the left-wing Meretz or that relies on the predominantly Arab Joint List alliance.

Speaking to Channel 12, Chikli said he prefers sitting with the Islamist Ra’am, over left-wing Zionist parties like Labor, or Meretz.

“Meretz and Labor completely boycotted the largest party in the nationalist camp (Likud) so such a constellation does not come together,” he said. It was not clear why he singled out the two left-wing parties, as the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White, and the right-wing New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu also refused to sit with Netanyahu.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

Chikli said he preferred the coalition Netanyahu tried to set up based on the outside support of Ra’am.

“The Arab society in Israel is undergoing a very interesting deep process. I’m not sure (Ra’am leader) Mansour Abbas is there yet and fully, fully recognize Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state,” he said.

But following reports that they may also be leaning in that direction, MKs Idit Silman, Abir Kara and Nir Orbach all made it clear Thursday that they will stay with party leader Naftali Bennett, who is negotiating an agreement with Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid to rotate the premiership between them with Bennett getting the first turn.

Silman said she was offered official posts and a reserved spot in the ruling Likud party by numerous envoys dispatched by Netanyahu.

Yamina party Idit Silman MK arrives to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Thanks, but no,” Silman wrote on Facebook. “I’m not interested in that, but rather in preventing fifth elections and stopping the chaos that you [Netanyahu] led the country to.”

She said she was sticking with Bennett and backed his efforts to form a “good government in Israel” as soon as possible.

“I believe in Bennett’s path, the Yamina party and the ability of our wonderful nation to cooperate at this time,” Silman said.

Abir Kara said that Netanyahu’s party had offered him the position of economy minister and a guaranteed spot on the Likud slate for the next two elections if he left Yamina.

In a letter to the prime minister, Kara turned down the offer, telling Netanyahu he had “failed to form a government” despite resorting to “tricks and gimmicks.”

“Instead of busying yourself with setting up a government, you were busy with personal insults against Naftali Bennett. Pity,” he wrote.

Hammering home his commitment to Bennett, Kara suggested that Likud “join with us in a government led by Naftali Bennett” and promised that Netanyahu’s party would receive “great influence” in such a coalition.

Yamina party MK Abir Kara seen in the Knesset on April 05, 2021. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

In response to Kara’s letter, Likud insisted that no such offer had been made and dismissed it as “ridiculous spin from Bennett that is intended to divert attention away from him galloping into a leftist-government with Meretz and Labor despite all his commitments to the voter.”

Netanyahu, who was last month given the mandate by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government following inconclusive March elections, failed to complete the task by the Tuesday midnight deadline. Lapid was charged by Rivlin Wednesday with forming a government.

Speaking at a Likud faction meeting Thursday afternoon, the prime minister lashed out at Bennett and called on Yamina members to defect from the party.

“Naftali Bennett is trying to hide the truth. This will be a left-wing government, a weak government that bows its head in the face of international pressure,” Netanyahu said.

But Chikli came in for praise, with Netanyahu calling him “brave” and a “man with values.”

“Just as MK Chikli did the right thing, Ayelet Shaked and other Yamina members can and need to do the right thing and not join this dangerous left-wing government,” Netanyahu said.

Meanwhile, he vowed that he could still form a government.

“I want to reassure you, I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here, fighting together with you until we win,” Netanyahu said, according to a party statement.

“I tell you this, we won’t descend into elections because no one wants to elections. Bennett prevented the formation of a right-wing government. We wanted one thing from him — to join a bloc of 59. The 59 would bring 61,” he added.

Following Netanyahu’s speech, a third Yamina lawmaker came out in support of Bennett.

“There is no need to call to us in speeches to the nation and to send envoys with offers. In politics too, loyalty and friendship are important values to me,” MK Orbach wrote on Facebook.

“As a religious Zionist who believes in the people of Israel, the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel, I believe with all my heart that the path of fifth elections, which you are seeking to lead to, is a slippery slope for Israel,” he added.

Orbach said he unequivocally backs Bennett in forming a unity government, calling it “the right way.”

Earlier Thursday, the prime minister met with the leaders of his bloc of allied parties for the first time since his mandate to form a government expired.

Clockwise from top: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri oh Shas, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni meet on May 6, 2021. (Likud)

The meeting was attended by Shas party leader Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, also of UTJ.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism alliance, was not at the meeting due to illness, Hebrew media reported. Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Netanyahu’s Likud was also at the meeting, held at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem.

In a statement following the meeting, the Likud party said the leaders agreed to remain united against the establishment of what it termed a “leftist government.”

The right-wing bloc called on Bennett, Shaked and the party’s lawmakers “to keep their promises to the voter and not join a government with Yair Lapid, Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz,” the heads of the Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz parties, respectively.

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on May 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud blames Bennett and his party for Netanyahu’s failure, claiming Yamina did not agree to join with Netanyahu and his bloc of right and religious parties.

However, while Bennett had committed to joining Netanyahu when he still had the mandate to form a government if the premier could muster a majority, Netanyahu was unable to convince the hard-right Religious Zionism to join, as in order to reach a majority in the 120-seat Knesset he would need to rely on the support of the Islamist Ra’am party from outside the coalition.

Netanyahu had in recent days demanded that Bennett rule out any coalition with the center-left, claiming that such a pledge would cause holdouts to join the fold. Bennett refused to do so.

Speaking in a joint press conference following their meeting with Netanyahu, Shas leader Aryeh Deri and UTJ head Moshe Gafni both called on Bennett to block a government formed by Lapid.

Deri told Bennett to “declare today there is no possibility for a left-wing government.”

Warning that the government will include Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, who he called “the great persecutor of Judaism,” Deri said, “do not make a wedge between the ultra-Orthodox and what you represent.”

Gafni said a Bennett-Lapid coalition would be” an anti-Land of Israel government.”

On Wednesday Rivlin handed the job to Lapid, who leads a so-called “change bloc” of leftist, center, and right-wing parties committed to replacing Netanyahu.

The Yesh Atid leader was set to give a press conference Thursday evening on his coalition efforts.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, arrives to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on May 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Lapid, like Netanyahu before him, has 28 days to try and form a government, and like Netanyahu, faces an uphill battle.

In addition to resolving their own differences, Lapid and Bennett must also muster a majority coalition from an unlikely mixture of right-wing, left-wing and centrist parties as well as the Islamist Ra’am, which complicates matters and raises the question of how stable such a government would be. Even with Yamina’s seven MKs, Lapid’s bloc has only 59 seats; hence the need to secure cooperation in the form of outside support from either the Joint List or Ra’am.

Aside from the difficulties Lapid has in reaching a majority, there is reportedly sharp disagreement on the divvying up of key ministries among the potential coalition partners.

If Lapid fails to cobble together a coalition during his 28-day window, which ends June 2, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse any Knesset member as prime minister. A leader has never before been elected during that time period in Israel. If that 21-day period fails to yield a coalition, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a fifth election in two and a half years.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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