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PM condemns violence against 'irrelevant' Sa'ar's party

Netanyahu, Bennett tussle over prospect of coalition with Lapid

After PM calls on Yamina head to vow not to form power-sharing government with Yesh Atid, Bennett mocks him, saying his promises are like hitting Waze’s ‘I’m not the driver’ button

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Knesset, on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Knesset, on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yamina party chairman Naftali Bennett traded barbs on Monday as the two right-wing party leaders competed for a similar pool of voters, with eight days remaining before the election.

Netanyahu called on Bennett to pledge not to join a government with opposition leader and Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid after the March 23 election.

While Bennett has not ruled out sitting in a coalition with the center-left Lapid, he has vowed not to allow the Yesh Atid chairman to be prime minister in such a coalition. Netanyahu has for weeks maintained that Bennett will nonetheless agree to serve under Yesh Atid in a power-sharing government in which the Yamina chair will be premier for half a term, arguing that this scenario would be the only one that would allow Bennett to fulfill his stated aspiration of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister.

“I am making a commitment to establish a broad right-wing coalition without a [premiership] rotation and certainly without Yair Lapid,” Netanyahu said in a video shared on his Twitter account. “Now it’s your turn, Naftali Bennett: Commit to a government without Lapid in any role and without a rotation. Commit.”

Bennett responded by mocking Netanyahu’s own questionable record of keeping election promises as well as his many left-wing political bedfellows over the years.

“So I must say,” he said later Monday at a conference organized by the right-wing Besheva newspaper. “Hearing the word commitment from Netanyahu is a bit like making [former Health Ministry director and vocal coronavirus skeptic] Yoram Lass the face of the campaign against the coronavirus.

Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett attends a conference of the Israeli Manufacturer’s Association in Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It’s like pressing the ‘I’m not the driver’ button on Waze [in order to use the app while driving],” Bennett continued. “This is the same Netanyahu who said, ‘I will abide by the rotation deal [with Benny Gantz] and there won’t be any tricks or shticks,’ when he broke the agreement before even finishing his sentence.”

“This is the same Netanyahu who swore he would evacuate Khan al-Ahmar, and today it is already a small city,” Bennett said, referring to the West Bank Bedouin hamlet, which the High Court of Justice ruled in 2018 could be demolished due to its lack of permits. It has not, however, grown in any significant matter since the prime minister vowed to flatten the village in 2019.

Polls show that Netanyahu will ultimately need Yamina in order to form the hard-right government he has been promoting during the ongoing election campaign. However, many surveys have indicated that even with Bennett, the two Haredi parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the far-right Religious Zionism party, Netanyahu might not have the 61 seats necessary to form a coalition. If he does, most analysts have concluded that Bennett will agree to forgo his aspirations to be prime minister and serve under Netanyahu as a senior partner.

However, if the pro-Netanyahu bloc does not have enough seats, Bennett will be in a position to possibly demand the premiership, though he’ll likely need a double-digit number of seats. Yamina has passed Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope to gain third place in the polls with 11-14 seats, but he still trails Yesh Atid (18-20) and Likud (28-30) significantly.

A scenario in which neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu bloc is large enough to form a coalition on its own has been predicted in many surveys, including a Sunday Channel 13 poll, which forecasted a 58-58 split. In this case, the Islamist Ra’am party — which like Yamina has refrained from ruling out either coalition type — could find itself as kingmaker with just four seats.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Ra’am’s affiliation to the broader Islamic and Palestinian movements would likely make it difficult for chairman Mansour Abbas to hand Netanyahu the premiership, despite his insistence in recent months that he’s willing to cooperate with any coalition that is prepared to advance reforms that benefit the Arab Israeli minority.

Moreover, Netanyahu has vowed not to cooperate in any fashion with Ra’am in order to form a government. However, his potential coalition’s most radical member, Itamar Ben Gvir from the Religious Zionism party, told the Besheva conference on Monday that “if Mansour Abbas says tomorrow ‘I change my mind, I think killing a baby because she is Jewish is wrong’ – then we can have a conversation about him supporting the government from the outside.”

Abbas has never said that he supports killing Jewish babies and he threatened to file a libel suit against Ben Gvir. Moreover, the Ra’am chair vowed not to back any government that includes Ben Gvir of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction.

Likud on Monday reiterated that it won’t form a coalition that relies on Ra’am.

Unlike Bennett, Sa’ar has vowed not to serve under Netanyahu in any circumstance. He claims that his strong stance on the matter has led the premier to send Likud activists to New Hope’s campaign events to assault the party’s supporters.

Netanyahu told the national religious Kipa news site Monday, “I condemn all violence against all candidates, and especially against irrelevant candidates like Gideon Sa’ar.”

Sa’ar shot back at Netanyahu in a statement, wondering why, if New Hope was so “irrelevant,” Likud was “sending” activists to beat up New Hope supporters.

Sa’ar, a former Likud party stalwart, on Saturday night accused Netanyahu supporters of disrupting a party event by throwing objects at participants, including stones and eggs. One person was injured.

Head of the New Hope party Gideon Saar attends a conference of the Israeli Manufacturer’s Association in Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He shared a video that showed people carrying Likud flags arguing with his supporters and calling him a traitor, apparently outside the meeting.

A day later, another New Hope candidate, Ofer Berkovitch, was violently confronted by Likud activists as he campaigned in the capital’s Mahane Yehuda market.

“Netanyahu has completely lost it. Bibi, I’m not afraid of you! In another ten days, I’ll replace you,” Sa’ar wrote Saturday on Facebook, referring to the premier by his nickname.

Sa’ar did not provide evidence demonstrating that the Likud activists had received a directive from above.

The New Hope chairman also called out Bennett on Monday, telling a media conference that the Yamina chairman was making a mistake by avoiding a pledge not to serve under Netanyahu.

“It is a great pity that he has not yet done that because it means that the next Netanyahu government can be formed with the help of right-wing votes,” Sa’ar said.

Yamina and New Hope are believed to be fighting over similar sectors of right-wing voters disappointed by Netanyahu.

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