Yesh Atid blames Likud for rumor

Likud, Lapid and Gantz deny report that they’re in unity government talks

As coalition talks with far-right partners hit a bump, Likud says reports it is quietly negotiating with centrist rivals Yesh Atid and National Unity are ‘fake news’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

File: Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-finance minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset on July 8, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
File: Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-finance minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset on July 8, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party denied a Wednesday report that it has been negotiating under the radar with centrist rivals Yesh Atid and National Unity in order to form a unity government that would not be reliant upon far-right parties.

Yesh Atid and a spokesperson for National Unity also denied the report from Hebrew daily Maariv, which said that people close to Netanyahu, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and National Unity’s Benny Gantz were quietly probing the option.

Prime Minister Lapid and Defense Minister Gantz have both said they would not partner with Netanyahu and committed to sitting in the opposition after November 1’s election delivered a decisive 64-seat majority to Likud and its right-religious bloc in the 120-seat Knesset.

While Netanyahu and far-right party Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit, as well as Haredi partners Shas and United Torah Judaism, campaigned on a pledge to form a right-wing government together, coalition talks have stalled over ministry postings, particularly for Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich, who is demanding to be defense minister.

Likud said the Wednesday report was “fake news” and “spin that never was.”

“Those that are investing so much in spreading fake news should rather invest those efforts in forming a fully right-wing government, immediately,” the party’s statement continued, implying that Religious Zionism may be the source of the report.

Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich, seen after a coalition meeting with Shas head Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A spokesperson for Smotrich did not immediately answer a request for comment.

Briefly bridging their negotiations impasse, Smotrich and Netanyahu met on Tuesday evening after a week of not negotiating face-to-face. However, their negotiations apparently broke down again, with planned meetings for Wednesday canceled.

Smotrich is pressing to receive the sensitive defense ministry or the finance post, both problematic given the US and other allies’ stated opposition to working with the ultranationalist. Smotrich developed a reputation as a competent minister of transportation but would be a particularly problematic choice to lead the security establishment, given that he was arrested by the Shin Bet in 2005 in connection to planned violent protests against settlement withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

He was ultimately released without being charged.

Yesh Atid called the reports of unity talks “unfounded rumors” and accused Likud of spreading them in order to “lower prices charged by Smotrich and [Shas leader Aryeh] Deri.”

“We will not conduct any negotiations with them and Yesh Atid will not sit in a government headed by someone accused of serious crimes,” the statement continued.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid walks at the Knesset, center, ahead of the swearing-in ceremony for lawmakers, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Netanyahu is currently on trial for four counts of corruption tied to his former tenure as prime minister. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying the charges were trumped up by biased police and state prosecutors, encouraged by political opponents and left-wing media, under a weak attorney general.

Gantz’s National Unity, parts of which previously partnered with Netanyahu in a short-lived 2020 unity government, simply said “no,” there is no negotiation. After Netanyahu burned Gantz by sending Israel back to elections in 2021 rather than honor their prime ministerial rotational agreement, Gantz has said that Netanyahu has expended all of his political capital with him.

The unity government scenario, while denied on all sides, is in line with other denied reports that President Isaac Herzog had encouraged the parties to also pursue a unity government, in hopes that it would remove or marginalize the extreme Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit party.

Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir, who made some of the greatest political gains among parties in the November 1 election, has also been wary that Netanyahu would use his popularity to win, but then dump him to form a government with centrists when push came to shove.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a faction meeting of the Otzma Yehudit party at the Knesset on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Staking out the unfamiliar position as being the calm adult in the room, Ben Gvir on Wednesday called on Likud and Religious Zionism to “show responsibility” and tone down the “slander and quarrels.”

Echoing words Netanyahu once threw against Ben Gvir, he tweeted “enough of the friendly fire.”

“Bezalel is a complete idealist, and I call on everyone to show responsibility. Let’s enter into intense negotiations in closed rooms until the smoke appears. We will not establish a right-wing government with slander and quarrels,” Ben Gvir wrote.

Israel’s 25th Knesset swore in Tuesday, but the outgoing ministers will continue to serve in their roles until a new coalition is established. Netanyahu has been pressing to form a government as quickly as possible, and originally had hoped to swear in Israel’s 37th government alongside the Knesset.

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