Senior Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as “dictators” and “tyrants” with a “lust for power,” and said the premier only cares about his ongoing corruption trial, in bombshell recordings aired on Monday.
The recordings were played on Channel 12, as Netanyahu was engaged in a last-minute attempt to draw Yamina into a right-wing coalition, with his deadline for forming a government set to expire on Tuesday night.
According to Maariv, the comments by Shaked, a former justice minister, were made earlier Monday during a meeting with national religious rabbis, one of whom chose to record her. Channel 12 did not specify who she was talking with.
Shaked has been reported to prefer a coalition with Netanyahu over a unity government with the centrist Yesh Atid party, in which the chairman of her slate, Naftali Bennett, would serve first as premier in a rotational agreement. But Monday’s recordings revealed that she was still prepared to back a unity government if efforts to form a right-wing coalition failed to bear fruit.
Shaked could be heard in the recording insisting that Yamina would be “thrilled” if Netanyahu manages to convince Bezalel Smotrich, the chairman of the far-right Religious Zionism party, to join a right-wing government reliant on the outside support of the Islamist Ra’am party.
She said another option would be for Netanyahu to ask President Reuven Rivlin to transfer the government-forming mandate to Bennett, claiming that the Yamina chair would have an easier time forming a right-wing government with Likud and could even bring along Benny Gantz’s Blue and White as well as Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope — both of whom have vowed not to sit with the premier.
Shaked further asserted that if Bennett receives endorsements from right-wing lawmakers to form a government, “he won’t go left.”
“But if [Netanyahu] gives the mandate to Bennett, and we fail to form a right-wing government because Gideon and Gantz [don’t budge], we are not prepared to head to another election,” she said, speculating that the center-left could end up forming a coalition with the help of the majority-Arab parties if another national vote is called.
Shaked said that if Yamina fails to form a right-wing government, “we will pursue the option [of a government] with the left, and try to persuade Bezalel to come with us, so we do not have to rely on Ra’am.
Shaked could be heard dismissing Smotrich’s claims that his opposition to a Ra’am-backed government is ideologically motivated.
“This is not an ideological matter…. If the state is important, if he thinks that the state should not rely on Abbas, then let us prevent us from leaning on Abbas,” she said, claiming that the Religious Zionism chairman pays less heed to the rabbis than Yamina does.
But Shaked, who has long been rumored to be eyeing a return to the Likud party, having begun her career as a staffer for Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office, reserved her harshest words for the premier.
“He wants to remain in power. He has a lust for power — he and his wife. They’re like tyrants, like dictators. They’re not prepared to move aside. We’re not like that,” she said.
“It’s true that he [Netanyahu] has to go. He has to go. But I said to [New Hope chairman] Gideon [Sa’ar], ‘There is a country [to run]. So what now? You’ll build this absurd coalition, with this and that [party], because he has to go?’” she continued, referring to negotiations to establish a coalition made up of right-wing, centrist, and left-wing parties in a bid to replace Netanyahu.
“Because of his trial, he’ll move even further to the right,” Shaked added of Netanyahu. “It’s the opposite of [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon [who moved from right to center as prime minister amid a corruption probe against him]. It’s true that the only thing he cares about now is his trial. He absolutely does not care about anything else. It’s true… all his considerations, his behavior, his comportment — all revolve around his trial,” she said.
“He’s afraid to go for a pardon and a plea bargain process, because he’s scared of it. He’s scared that ultimately he’ll have to plead guilty and it won’t work out… After all, he’s a very paranoid man. So he’s afraid of it,” Shaked said of Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption in three cases.
Shaked indicated that Yamina is seeking to secure a deal with Netanyahu whereby Bennett will become prime minister for 1.5 years — rather than the one year offered by the Likud leader — followed by Netanyahu for two and-a-half years.
Shaked claimed that part of the reason Bennett has engaged in negotiations with Lapid to form a unity government is to convince Netanyahu to come to the table and cease his efforts to bring about a fifth consecutive election in less than two years.
“[Netanyahu] understood the situation, that Bennett has an alternative government [in his pocket], and as a result [Netanyahu] was prepared to offer [Bennett] to serve first as premier for a year and a half. Otherwise, this [offer] would never have come about. He would have taken us [straight] to another election.”
She said Yamina has paid a “heavy price” among its base for this negotiating tactic, “but I hope that if we can form a government, then we’ll be able to explain” the strategy to party supporters.
She also described alleged attempts by Likud to strong-arm New Hope’s Sa’ar into a government.
“The Likud has offered to pay [the New Hope party’s] debts.. they really pressed him. I’ve sat with him [Sa’ar] for hours. First of all, he’s right: Netanyahu must go. He’s correct about that, but what can you do? So I tell him [Sa’ar], there’s a framework whereby [Netanyahu] won’t have a year [as prime minister at the start of a new coalition], and we’ll limit his term [later in the coalition]… It’ll be his last term. So live with one more term…. Gideon and Yvet [Liberman] truly think that Netanyahu is a danger to the State of Israel. They’re convinced of it… We don’t think so.
“Also, now that Netanyahu has ‘koshered’ the Arabs, nobody will have any issues forming a government with them. That’s the great damage that has already been done,” Shaked said, referring to Netanyahu’s willingness to rely on Ra’am’s support.
Channel 12 reported separately that amid reports of angst among Shaked and others in Yamina over Bennett’s talks with Lapid, the chairman of the right-wing slate told fellow lawmakers during Monday’s faction meeting that if they are uncomfortable with the possibility of a unity government now is the time to pick up and leave, rather than wait until the moment before the coalition is sworn in to spoil the effort.
With less than two days remaining for him to form a coalition, Netanyahu said on Monday afternoon that he was ready to step aside as premier and let Bennett serve as prime minister first in a rotation agreement — a proposal immediately dismissed by Bennett, who said in response that Netanyahu simply does not have the votes.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Lapid said he expected President Rivlin to task him with forming a government after Netanyahu’s 28-day period to do so ends Tuesday night, “if nothing surprising happens” before then, but that he would willing to let Bennett serve first as prime minister in any rotation agreement between them.
Speaking in a video message released on his social media accounts, Netanyahu said that in his negotiations with Bennett, “I told him I am willing to accept his demand for a rotation deal in which he will serve first as prime minister for one year. Yamina party members will enter the government and Knesset with important roles.”
Bennett, however, said he had never asked to be prime minister and reiterated his previous pledge to join Netanyahu only if the incumbent can come up with enough Knesset support for a coalition; if not, Bennett said, he would back an alternative government.
Netanyahu swiftly responded with an argument he has previously made, saying that if Bennett came aboard, others would follow — making possible a right-wing majority.
However, Smotrich and Sa’ar both made clear again on Monday that they were not about to boost Netanyahu’s chances.
Though Yamina won just seven seats in the March election, Bennett has become a potential kingmaker and even king, having not yet declared who he will back as prime minister. He has repeatedly said that he will support a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu if the prime minister has the votes, but will work toward a unity government without Netanyahu if not.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is fighting for his political and legal survival after the March 23 elections, as he struggles to form a government while on trial for corruption charges. Though his official mandate to assemble a coalition expires on Tuesday night, he can request a 14-day extension from Rivlin.
The last elections, the fourth since April 2019, ended in gridlock, with Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc again coming short of a ruling majority, in part because three right-wing parties ran with the declared goal of replacing him. Barring an unexpected breakthrough, Netanyahu has no clear way of putting together a ruling coalition.
Rivlin, who as Israel’s president is tasked with mandating a lawmaker to form a government, can either give Netanyahu an extension, hand the mandate to another lawmaker or kick it to the Knesset for a 21-day period, after which fifth elections would automatically be called if no one forms a government.
If Rivlin does task another Knesset member with forming a government, it is widely expected to be either Bennett or Lapid.