Netanyahu speaks with Bennett as Yamina considers joining unity government
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Netanyahu speaks with Bennett as Yamina considers joining unity government

Right-wing faction ‘still considering all options’; Likud said looking to potentially break it up to bring it into the new coalition piecemeal

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (2nd L) visit an army base on the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. (Atef Safadi/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (2nd L) visit an army base on the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. (Atef Safadi/Pool/AFP)

Two days after signing a agreement with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form an “emergency” government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday spoke with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party, as it considers whether to join the fledgling coalition or break from the right-wing bloc and become part of the opposition.

Netanyahu had been set to meet all leaders of the right-wing party at 7 p.m. at his official residence in Jerusalem, including Bennett, MK Ayelet Shaked, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Rafi Peretz.

But the meeting was canceled in favor of a video conference with Bennett alone. After the pair’s meeting ended, they issues a joint statement saying it had been “positive” and that they had agreed to speak again soon.

A Yamina party source told The Times of Israel that the leadership was “still considering all options,” and would speak to the prime minister “with an open mind.”

Bennett said Wednesday that the party wants to be in the government, but only if it aligns with his nationalist faction’s agenda.

“We always want to be in government, but only if the ship is sailing in the same direction more or less that we find acceptable,” he said at a press conference.

Yamina leaders (left to right) Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Rafi Peretz at the party’s election-night headquarters in Ramat Gan on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

Yamina was initially expected to stay out of the “national emergency” government being formed between Likud and Blue and White, with Bennett and Shaked angry at Netanyahu over certain concessions he had made as part of the deal.

The prime minister has won Gantz’s agreement to a limited annexation in the West Bank, but on the issue of judicial reform, which is also central to Yamina’s agenda, Netanyahu seems to have ceded ground, with Gantz refusing to allow changes to the structure of the Judicial Appointments Committee even as his party takes control of the Justice Ministry.

During the talks earlier this month, Yamina, whose Shaked served as justice minister in 2015-2019, warned that it had “no intention of being a fig leaf in a leftist government.”

Additionally, with Netanyahu ceding half of all cabinet positions to Gantz’s bloc, six-seat Yamina would be lucky to get two ministries even within what is set to be Israel’s largest government ever.

According to the deal signed by Netanyahu and Gantz, the government of 32 ministers will be expanded to 36 after the six-month “emergency period” during the coronavirus crisis, leaving open the possibility of Yamina joining at a later date.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked attend a press conference in Ramat Gan, July 21, 2019. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Shaked and Bennett split from Jewish Home in December 2018 to form the New Right in a bid to appeal to relatively liberal religious nationalist voters. The two had hoped to pull votes away from both Likud and the Union of Right-Wing Parties — a faction comprising the Jewish Home, the National Union and the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party — but the maneuver failed and New Right did not pass the electoral threshold in the April 9 elections.

Ahead of September’s vote, New Right, the National Union and the Jewish Home came together on a joint slate — Yamina — to ensure they all cleared the 3.25% electoral threshold. They succeeded, winning 7 seats.

In April’s election the three parties remained together, but pulled in just six seats.

With just two ministries, the party will be stretched to keep its various factions happy. To hold itself together it must ensure its many parts feel they have a seat at the table — at the cabinet table, that is.

Likud sources told Channel 13 Wednesday that the party could try to break up Yamina if the latter does not agree to enter in unison, drawing some of its lawmakers into the coalition.

“If Yamina doesn’t accept our offer, we will try to break it up and bring them in in pieces,” the source said. “First Rafi Peretz and then [Bezalel] Smotrich.”

In response to the reports, Yamina issued a statement saying, “We are one faction. We won’t let the prime minister do to us what he did to Blue and White,” in reference to the dissolution of Benny Gantz’s alliance with partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon.

Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.

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