Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu partly reestablished the bloc of right-wing, religious parties that successfully prevented the formation of more centrist and secular coalitions after previous elections.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties signed on to Netanyahu’s loyalty pledge on Tuesday, agreeing that they will not independently join a government led by any party other than Likud after the March 23 election.
The document was supposed to be signed by Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, but the leader of the far-right faction announced that he had refused to do so, saying such pacts had not proven effective in producing right-wing governments.
“Our only loyalty is to [our] path and values, and we will only be part of a government that expresses them,” Smotrich’s party said in a statement.
Likud later Tuesday reminded Smotrich that he had pledged, when the two parties signed a surplus votes agreement on February 9, not to support any candidate for prime minister other than Netanyahu. Smotrich retorted that the February 9 agreement commits Netanyahu to a coalition committed to clear right-wing principles.
The resurrected bloc also won’t include Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, from which Smotrich split off last month. Bennett has campaigned aggressively against Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic and has presented himself as a “candidate for prime minister,” although recent polling numbers giving him less than half the number of seats Likud is slated to receive.
Nonetheless, the move will further complicate efforts by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar — the leaders of the likely second- and third-largest parties, respectively — to form a government. If either performs well enough on election day and the right-wing bloc refuses to budge, the more centrist parties will be forced to look elsewhere for coalition partners, be it with Meretz, Labor or possibly the Joint List or Ra’am if the majority-Arab parties agree to offer support from the opposition. If not, and the right-wing, religious bloc doesn’t cobble together at least 61 seats next month, the country could well be headed for a fifth election in under three years.
Avigdor Liberman, who heads the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, blasted the reestablishment of the “messianic bloc” in a tweet calling on Lapid, Sa’ar and Bennett “to join my initiative and commit to forming a Zionist and liberal government without Shas and United Torah Judaism.”