'Things were said in a way that was inappropriate'

Facing firing, Smotrich apologizes to Netanyahu for calling him ‘weak’

Transportation minister says his criticism was inappropriate as Likud warns it’s his last chance; re-branding United Right as Yamina, Shaked says she’s seeking to be PM

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich gives a speech at the Yamina electoral alliance's campaign launch, in Ramat Gan, on August 12, 2019. (Flash90)
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich gives a speech at the Yamina electoral alliance's campaign launch, in Ramat Gan, on August 12, 2019. (Flash90)

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich apologized Monday for his Twitter diatribe against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the premier’s Likud party said Smotrich would have been fired from the cabinet if he did not walk back his comments.

Smotrich assailed Netanyahu on Sunday for the temporary closure of the Temple Mount holy site to Jewish visitors and a court ruling barring a gender-segregated concert from being held at a public park, accusing him of being “weak” and showing “zero leadership.”

Netanyahu was reportedly angered by the remarks and considered firing Smotrich, but after the two met Monday the transportation minister retained his job and seat on the high-level security cabinet.

“Out of true sorrow, things were said in a way that was inappropriate, especially given the relationship between a prime minister and a minister in his government, and for that I am sorry,” Smotrich said at the United Right electoral alliance’s campaign launch.

Smotrich said that while there is room for criticism of the prime minister, it should not boil over into personal attacks. “I accept this,” he said.

Praising Netanyahu’s record as prime minister and dubbing him “the leader of the right,” Smotrich said his party has always supported the premier and would continue to do so. He added, however, a pledge not to hold back in the future if he felt criticism was necessary.

“When he needs to be criticized we’ll criticize him and no one, I mean no one, under any threat, will silence this criticism,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 14, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

Following Smotrich’s apology, Likud released a statement saying Netanyahu told Smotrich during their meeting earlier Monday that if he did not immediately apologize, he would be fired. Smotrich was appointed transportation minister in June in Netanyahu’s caretaker government.

“The prime minister clarified to Smotrich that there won’t be another warning,” a party source was quoted saying.

Despite apologizing to Netanyahu, Smotrich remained unsparing in his criticism of the legal system for the barring of the gender-segregated concert in Afula, accusing it of “showing contempt” of Judaism and religious Jews.

“This is a decision that tries to force upon me and hundreds of thousands of other citizens in the country reeducation according to ‘enlightened and liberal’ values,” he said.

Also speaking at the United Right campaign launch was its leader Ayelet Shaked, who announced the alliance would now be known as Yamina, meaning “rightward” in Hebrew.

Yamina is made up of Shaked’s New Right, Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s Jewish Home, and Smotrich’s National Union.

Shaked, who took the reins of New Right from Naftali Bennett last month, after the party failed to clear the minimum vote threshold in April’s Knesset elections, said she is aiming to be prime minister.

“I am entering the political battlefield and am aiming as high as I can — to the leadership of the country,” she said.

Shaked has previously said she hopes to be prime minister, as has Bennett.

Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked speaks during the electoral alliance’s campaign launch, in Ramat Gan, on August 12, 2019. (Flash90)

While acknowledging there were differences between Yamina’s constituent parties, Shaked said they were stronger together.

“We understand that only together can we protect the tradition and teachings of Israel against the cynical alliance between [Avigdor] Liberman and [Yair] Lapid,” she said, referring respectively to the Yisrael Beytenu party leader and Blue and White’s No. 2, who are campaigning on opposing religious influence over public institutions.

Both Lapid and Liberman have been key targets in Netanyahu’s campaign, with the latter having blocked the premier from forming a ruling majority after April’s elections. Liberman refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies.

With Shaked and Bennett having failed to enter the Knesset and Liberman refusing to join a Netanyahu-led government, the prime minister pushed through a vote in late May to call fresh elections, rather than have another lawmaker get a crack at forming a coalition.

The second round of elections are scheduled for September 17.

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