Netanyahu, Bennett fail to reach agreement for Yamina to join new coalition

Sides dispute terms of offer extended by PM during phone call, which Likud says was a ‘final effort’ to bring religious party into next government before it’s sworn in

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset vote on December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset vote on December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett failed to reach an agreement Wednesday on the latter’s entry into the incoming government, with the two sides continuing to quarrel over what positions Yamina lawmakers would receive in the coalition.

Bennett and Netanyahu were scheduled to meet in person but ended up speaking by phone, with Yamina charging that the Prime Minister’s Office was “unwilling” to schedule a face-to-face meeting.

“In the conversation the prime minister said Likud’s offer hasn’t changed and won’t change. The offer is the Jerusalem affairs portfolio, a deputy minister with responsibility for national service and settlement, half of the [Knesset] immigration committee chairmanship and another minister,” a statement from Bennett’s spokesperson said.

Netanyahu’s Likud party countered that the premier had also offered the Education Ministry or a “senior economic portfolio” of Bennett’s choosing and described the phone call as a “final effort” to bring Yamina into the new government before it is sworn in on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, Bennett rejected the offer because of the internal struggle in Yamina over the division of [ministerial] portfolios and because what is important is seat-ology and not ideology,” a Likud statement said, referring to cabinet seats.

Yamina in a subsequent statement denied such an offer was made.

“The words ‘senior economic’ weren’t said during the phone call, nor was ‘education portfolio,'” the party said. “Netanyahu said ‘another ministry’ without specifying which. The meaning: A diminution of the original offer.”

From left to right: Yamina party members Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz at an event in the Elkana settlement on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

The phone call came ahead of the scheduled swearing-in of the government, with Yamina threatening to bolt for the opposition as the talks with Likud drag on.

After the last time Bennett and Netanyahu spoke, Likud issued a statement claiming Yamina had definitively decided to join the “left-wing opposition,” while Yamina said it would not join the coalition and was instead “preparing for the day after Netanyahu.”

Netanyahu called Bennett on Monday evening to offer his small six-seat party the ministries of education and Jerusalem affairs, along with a “significant” deputy ministership responsible for national service volunteering, and the Settlement Division overseeing development in West Bank settlements.

However, Bennett, currently defense minister, demanded the health and transportation ministries, and the chairmanship of the Knesset’s powerful Law, Constitution and Justice Committee.

Responding to Tuesday night’s announcement that Likud MK Yuli Edelstein had accepted Netanyahu’s offer to become health minister, Yamina fumed that “Netanyahu slammed the door on our entry to the government.”

“He looked for the perfect way to humiliate Yamina and its voters and succeeded. Edelstein did not demand the health portfolio at all, Bennett did, and deserves it in light of his role in the coronavirus crisis,” a source said in a party statement.

In a further blow and indication that the religious right-wing party was headed for the opposition, Netanyahu on Tuesday also reportedly offered the position of education minister to Likud MK Yuval Steinitz. The current education minister is Rafi Peretz of Yamina.

Yamina has been a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc over the past two elections, though the premier and Bennett are widely seen to have a fraught relationship.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism at a meeting of the heads of the right-religious bloc, at the Knesset, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following the announcement of Edelstein as health minister, Netanyahu insisted that he wanted the national-religious party in the next government but accused it of rejecting his “generous offer” to join.

He also complained that Yamina didn’t recommend he be tasked with forming the new government last week.

“I hope a change will occur. In any case, religious Zionism is our flesh and blood. Most religious Zionists voted for Likud, they’re represented by Likud and the Likud-led government will continue to look out for our shared interests and values,” Netanyahu said.

Yamina’s withdrawal would ease Netanyahu’s difficulties within Likud, where a large number of senior MKs are competing for a smaller number of ministries than in the last government. By the terms of the coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, half the 32 cabinet posts of the new government must go to Gantz’s bloc of 19 MKs and half to Netanyahu’s bloc of 59.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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