Likud lashes out at Bennett, Smotrich after shock Knesset defeat

Following loss in vote on Arrangements Committee, Likud claims Yamina ‘rushing to leftist coalition’; Netanyahu said to blame Religious Zionism’s ‘provocations’ against Ra’am

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, addresses supporters at the party's election night event in Jerusalem, early on March 24, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, addresses supporters at the party's election night event in Jerusalem, early on March 24, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party publicly lashed out at Yamina and its leader Naftali Bennett Tuesday, while the premier was reported to have privately blasted Religious Zionism and its head Bezalel Smotrich after suffering a stinging defeat in the Knesset on Monday.

Amid the ongoing deadlock following the election, a Likud proposal regarding party representation on the key transitional Arrangements Committee was voted down by the Knesset, despite having the support of both Yamina and Religious Zionism.

The proposal was defeated when the Islamist Ra’am party, which Netanyahu is hoping will prop up his government, voted with the opposition. Ra’am then supported a counterproposal from the opposition that was passed, giving the anti-Netanyahu bloc a majority on the committee.

The defeat led one leading associate of the premier to publicly reflect that it appeared Likud would not continue to lead the country.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Likud charged that Bennett was “rushing toward a leftist government with Meretz and Labor with the support of the Joint List,” the latter a predominantly Arab party. It cited the fact that Yamina stood against Likud on a proposal for appointing deputy Knesset speakers on Monday night, after the loss on the Arrangements Committee vote (though it neglected to mention that Yamina had fully supported the prime minister on the main issue).

Meanwhile Kan news reported that Netanyahu was blaming Smotrich for Likud’s defeat, citing his repeated attacks on Ra’am amid the coalition negotiations. “He tripped us up,” Netanyahu is said to have told senior officials in his Likud party.

Still, Netanyahu and Smotrich met Tuesday afternoon for talks, the content of which was not immediately known.

Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas said after the vote on the Arrangements Committee that he was driven away from supporting Likud in the vote due to “incitement” from Religious Zionism lawmakers, Likud allies, who regularly accuse the Arab Israeli parties in the Knesset of being anti-Zionist, supporting Palestinian terrorism, and hating Israel.

Abbas is also reported to have been frustrated by Likud keeping him out of the loop during negotiations with other parties over the committee and the coalition in general.

Netanyahu told Likud officials that “Smotrich’s provocations of Ra’am’s people is what caused Mansour Abbas to go to the other side,” Kan reported.

Smotrich kept up his attacks on Ra’am Tuesday, as well as on those who back cooperation with the party, tweeting that the threat to the right-wing camp was coming from anyone “who irresponsibly strives to have terror supporters who deny the state’s right to exist hold the balance of power and become those who determine our future; anyone who wants to make the Jewish state into a hostage, dependent on extortions of protection money from its enemies.”

Netanyahu and Smotrich met later in the day for continued talks.

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 19, 2021. (Kan)

Abbas told Kan Tuesday, “We will not agree to be a punching bag or a target of incitement, blood libels and false accusations.”

However, he stressed that his party’s actions the night before should not be taken as an indication of overall support for the opposition.

“We have not cut off the lines of communications with anyone,” he said. “There is no inclination here; we will go with whoever takes steps toward us.”

Abbas insisted that his talks with opposition leader MK Yair Lapid that precipitated his vote with the opposition focused solely on the committee and did not deal with any potential coalition-building to replace Netanyahu.

Others on Tuesday also attacked Smotrich for the defeat, and for his refusal to consider cooperating with Ra’am, without which Netanyahu has little hope of forming a government. An unnamed senior source in the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which is allied with Netanyahu, told the Maariv daily that the Religious Zionism leader was behaving “like a kid who didn’t get the gift he expected and is smashing the store.”

The setback over the Arrangements Committee came as Netanyahu strives to build a majority coalition following last month’s inconclusive elections. To get to a majority of 61 Knesset seats the Netanyahu-led bloc needs to include both Religious Zionism and the Yamina party led by MK Naftali Bennett, as well as outside support from Ra’am’s four lawmakers.

Smotrich has ruled out sitting in a coalition that rests on even outside support from Ra’am.

Facing Netanyahu is the Lapid-led “change bloc” of parties from the right, left, and center. That bloc will also be unable to form a government without Yamina and Ra’am.

Neither party has committed to either side.

Orit Farkash-Hacohen. (Yanai Yechiel)

Senior Yamina officials told Kan Tuesday that they have received messages from Netanyahu’s negotiating team that the prime minister is ready to give up his efforts to form a government, saying Likud is not hopeful of finding a solution to Smotrich’s objections to Ra’am, or managing to pry individual lawmakers away the change bloc, or convincing New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar to bring his party into a coalition that would keep the prime minister in power.

Those close to Netanyahu are said to be divided between continuing coalition-building efforts or formally returning the mandate to President Reuven Rivlin early. Netanyahu still has two weeks to try to complete the task.

According to Kan, some advisers of Netanyahu believe returning the mandate early could catch the anti-Netanyahu bloc off-guard, and leave it less time to maneuver toward forming a coalition.

Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen, of the Blue and White party, on Tuesday attacked Bennett for continuing to play both sides, telling Channel 12 News that Bennett and Yamina can not stay on the fence much longer.

Following the vote, Netanyahu’s allies are increasingly considering the possibility that he will fail in forming the next government, with Shas MK Yinon Azulay telling Radio 103FM that the committee vote “proved that it is still not certain we will be in the government.”

Likud party whip MK Miki Zohar, who chairs the Arrangements Committee, tweeted that the party had not yet given up, writing that “we are continuing to fight for our path and are not giving in to them so easily.

“Despite all the difficulties, I will continue to do everything to assist Likud and the prime minister together with our partners in order to succeed in the coming battles in the Knesset,” he wrote.

Screen capture from video of Likud MK Miki Zohar chairing a meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, April 19, 2021. (Knesset Channel)

The previous night, as he chaired the inaugural meeting of the Arrangements Committee, Zohar said that following its loss in the plenum vote, the Likud party understood that Netanyahu was not going to form a government and that the party was heading to the opposition.

If Netanyahu fails to form a government, Rivlin will need to either task a second candidate with doing so or send the mandate back to the Knesset to directly choose a lawmaker to do the job.

The opposition’s Lapid also faces significant challenges in forming a majority as the anti-Netanyahu bloc includes parties that are diametrically opposed in their world views on major issues.

Should neither bloc establish a government Israel would head to what would be its fifth elections within three years, with the four previous ones all failing to break through the political logjam.

UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni told Kan Tuesday that his party will stay with Netanyahu whatever happens, even if it means going into the opposition.

“Our position is unequivocal and it won’t change based on mood,” Gafni said.

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