Smotrich sorry for 'improper words said behind closed doors'

Netanyahu says he ‘forgives’ Smotrich for calling him a liar in leaked recording

Ex-PM calls Religious Zionism chair’s comments against him ‘defamatory,’ urges the right to ‘stop friendly fire’; says Smotrich, Ben Gvir will both be ministers in his government

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 10, 2020. (Courtesy)
Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 10, 2020. (Courtesy)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he “forgives” Bezalel Smotrich after leaked recordings aired on Sunday showed the Religious Zionism party chair claiming Netanyahu had “desperately wanted” his right-wing coalition to sit with the Islamist party Ra’am following the 2021 elections and accusing the Likud leader of “lying through his teeth” on the matter.

In a statement posted on his social media channels, Netanyahu said: “I forgive Smotrich for his defamatory words.” He called on the right-wing religious bloc he leads to “stop the friendly fire and recruit the entire right to prevent the continuation of the… [current] government, which endangers the future of Israel.”

“Enough. Once was enough.”

He added that if Smotrich and far-right ally Itamar Ben Gvir “get one seat more or less, that’s not important, because they’ll be ministers in our government anyway. But if Likud is smaller than [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid by a seat or two, it could give Lapid a government. That’s why Likud has to win big.”

The latest polls predict Netanyahu’s Likud receiving 30-31 seats in the November 1 election, and Yesh Atid receiving 25 seats.

Hours after Netanyahu’s statement, Smotrich made a public apology while seeming to further suggest the Likud chief wanted Ra’am’s support.

“I’m proud I led the opposition to [Ra’am leader Mansour] Abbas and the Muslim Brotherhood and am happy that the entire national camp got behind this stance, and I apologize for the improper words that were said behind closed doors a long time ago,” Smotrich wrote on Twitter.

He reiterated the apology in a series of television interviews, but avoided answering whether Netanyahu tried to pressure him into accepting a government that relied on Ra’am.

Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)

Also Monday, Ben Gvir said he felt betrayed by Netanyahu in a recording aired by Channel 12 news.

In the tape, which the network said was recorded during an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting Monday, Ben Gvir appears to refer to previous forecasts showing Religious Zionism winning more seats if he led the list instead of Smotrich, but says Netanyahu asked him to fall in line and that the move would “pay off.”

“But up to now it seems that he obtained his goal with us and moved on. In my eyes it’s just like a knife in the back,” Ben Gvir said.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party visits Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar on October 6, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Earlier, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman confirmed that Netanyahu had tried to pressure the far-right party to join a coalition with Ra’am in the aftermath of the 2021 election, telling 103FM that “it’s no secret they applied massive pressure regarding going with Ra’am.”

However, Rothman played down the recording’s significance, claiming it was “old” audio disseminated for political purposes.

Speaking to Galei Israel Radio, Rothman added that airing recordings taken in a private setting was not “honorable.” Talking to 103FM, Rothman also claimed that the leaked recording was an indication that the right-wing bloc was poised for victory on November 1, though he remained vague as to who might be behind the move.

“In a certain way, this revelation is a source of comfort. Certain people have concluded that the right-wing bloc is going to win, and they’re choosing to engage in creating friction within the camp,” Rothman argued.

He also said it was “no secret” that Netanyahu had tried to convince Religious Zionism to sit with Ra’am, saying “it was clear that if it weren’t for our refusal, a coalition with Ra’am would have been advanced.”

Rothman explained that the entire right-wing camp was now unified in its refusal to sit in a government with Ra’am. Therefore, despite the leaked recordings, Rothman said he “consider[s] the incident over.”

Responding to the recording, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman accused Smotrich of leaking the audio for his own benefit.

“Why did this come out eight days before the elections? We are talking about audio recorded a long time ago. My hypothesis is very clear, that the person who leaked it was Bezalel Smotrich.

“He is a calculated person, a tireless subversive,” Liberman charged.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz also accused Netanyahu of lying.

“Netanyahu lied to me when he said I was supplying helicopters to the Palestinian Authority,” Gantz told the Kan public broadcster. “Netanyahu lies and distorts.”

In the tape played by Kan on Sunday, Smotrich explained that Netanyahu was “lying through his teeth” when denying attempting to form a coalition with Ra’am after the 2021 election.

But since Netanyahu is denying it, Smotrich said, “I’m toeing the line. I don’t lie when I’m interviewed [about it]. I say, I’m not concerned with the past — it’s not important.”

Education Minister Yoav Gallant at a conference in Jerusalem on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Army Radio Monday, Likud MK Yoav Gallant denied Smotrich’s claims that Netanyahu had sought to have Ra’am join Likud in a coalition, saying “we did not try to establish a government with Mansour Abbas, it was Lapid and Bennett who did. All this political spin is intended to create tensions in the right-wing bloc.”

In his initial response to the broadcast of the recording, Smotrich told Kan that he and Netanyahu “work and cooperate fully and closely,” while suggesting the recording’s release was meant to stoke discord between them ahead of the elections.

“We won’t allow anyone to sow conflict between us. We will work together and form a Jewish, national and Zionist government,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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