Despite denials, Sa’ar said deep in talks with Likud as coalition wavers

Reports say New Hope already talking portfolios, guarantees as coalition struggles to pass key renewal of West Bank law; Ra’am said willing to support bill if assured it will pass

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Minister of Justice Gideon Saar at the assembly hall of the Knesset,  on May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Minister of Justice Gideon Saar at the assembly hall of the Knesset, on May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has held in-depth talks with the opposition Likud party aimed at forming an alternative government, including the allocation of key ministries, Hebrew media reports said Friday.

Sa’ar has repeatedly denied the talks, but has also warned of the imminent collapse of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government unless it passes key legislation to renew the application of Israeli civil and criminal law to West Bank settlers.

With the bill’s prospects shrinking and Bennett making a rare public plea for support, Sa’ar on Friday again warned that the coalition’s survival could be at stake if the struggling legislation fails to pass.

Sa’ar warnings have added fuel to speculation that his New Hope party and the opposition Likud are in talks to form an alternate government that could return former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power after just a year riding the pine.

Talks have progressed to the point of allocating ministry positions, though the sides remain at loggerheads regarding Sa’ar’s current portfolio, Channel 12 news reported.

The justice portfolio has taken on further importance with Netanyahu currently on trial in three corruption cases. The cases were cited among the reasons that many members of New Hope originally broke away from Likud and vowed not to sit with Netanyahu.

According to the unsourced report, Likud is adamant that it receives control of the ministry, over fears Sa’ar could torpedo a range of legal reforms. New Hope is also insisting on holding onto the ministry, though could move Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin into the role.

Both Sa’ar and Elkin are former Netanyahu apparatchiks who broke away in recent years.

New Hope is also seeking guarantees that Netanyahu will not dissolve the Knesset and call new elections once Sa’ar jumps ship, which could dent his political future.

Sa’ar promised voters that he would not join a Netanyahu-led government during elections last year, instead joining a coalition formed by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid of eight ideologically disparate parties.

Since the government was formed a year ago, the right-religious opposition has attempted to cleave off right-wing lawmakers or whole parties, launching pressure campaigns and accusing them of being in the thrall of “terrorist” Arab politicians. However, the efforts have been hampered by a lack of trust in Netanyahu cemented by his discarded promises to Blue and White head Benny Gantz when the two formed a government in 2020.

Likud was trying to provide guarantees to Sa’ar, including having far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the Religious Zionism party, promise not to support the Knesset’s dissolution.

Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich attends a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/flash90)

A second report claimed that talks had “cooled” in the past 36 hours and Likud was becoming disaffected with Sa’ar.

In a video call with supporters of his New Hope party Friday morning, Sa’ar reiterated his demand for all parties in the struggling coalition to back the bill.

“If the coalition doesn’t get a grip on itself, there will be consequences. It really endangers the continued existence of the government,” he said. “Survival is not a value in and of itself.”

But he also bashed Netanyahu for refusing to support the bill, accusing the former prime minister of “cynicism and irresponsibility.”

His comments came days after the left-wing Meretz party pledged to back the bill, leaving the Islamist Ra’am as the only coalition holdout. Ra’am has remained tight-lipped about how it will vote on the bill, which must pass by the end of the month, but generally opposes settlers being granted rights withheld from Palestinians.

However, even if Sa’ar and Bennett succeed in bringing Ra’am on board, the coalition only holds 60 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — not enough to approve the legislation if all opposition lawmakers vote against it.

Channel 13 reported Friday that Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas was willing to support the law, but only if the coalition could guarantee success by getting breakaway Yamina MK Idit Silman to support the bill, which would bring them to a 61 majority.

While the emergency measure is ostensibly backed by the Likud and other opposition parties, lawmakers have refused to reach across the aisle in a bid to hasten the government’s demise, leaving Sa’ar with few options.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that Ra’am also wanted guarantees that MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the left-wing Meretz party would also support the bill.

Zoabi briefly resigned from the coalition in recent weeks over what she called a rightward shift of the government, before being cajoled back in.

The reports said that Abbas was not willing to face the fallout from his voters for supporting the bill, if its passage could not be guaranteed.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a morning walk in Jerusalem, June 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sa’ar has repeatedly pledged to not join a government led by Netanyahu due to his criminal indictments, but has been coyly indirect when asked to repeat that pledge in recent days.

“My opinion hasn’t changed,” he said, denying talks with Likud but not ruling out such negotiations at a later date.

Likud MK Nir Barkat told Channel 12 that he believed that right-wing members of the current coalition were edging away from their refusal to sit with Netanyahu.

“The reality has changed and today members of the right understand it,” he said. “They understand that there will be elections soon and they will be wiped out if they don’t return to the nationalist camp.”

This picture taken on May 10, 2022, shows construction work in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev, near Jerusalem. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The bill being pushed by Sa’ar seeks to renew an emergency measure extending Israeli criminal law and certain key civil laws — such as income tax and health insurance — to Israelis living in the West Bank. Though Israel has not annexed the West Bank, the measure ensures that settlers living there are treated as though they live in Israel in most matters, without extending those same legal arrangements to Palestinians.

Originally enacted in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, the law remains an “emergency measure” that must be renewed every five years. Last passed in 2017, it is set to expire at the end of June.

Sa’ar, whose right-wing party supports settlements and opposes Palestinian statehood, said Wednesday that unless the measure passes, Israeli settlers will become subject to Israel’s military justice system, which is based on Jordanian law. He said such a situation had never occurred in Israeli history.

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