Sara Netanyahu said to have vetoed prospect of Ayelet Shaked joining Likud

After firing the justice minister, along with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, PM says he won't hold on to their portfolios, will appoint interim ministers in next 48 hours

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces his wife Sara as he appears before supporters of his Likud party in Tel Aviv early on April 10, 2019, as election results are announced. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, vetoed efforts to bring outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked into the Likud party ahead of the upcoming elections, Channel 13 news reported Sunday.

In recent days reports had proliferated that Shaked was interested in running on the ruling party’s ticket in September.

According to Sunday’s report, which cited several witnesses, as Netanyahu’s prospective coalition partners met last Wednesday during last-ditch efforts to form a government, there was talk of the possibility of new elections and Shaked’s potential placement on Likud’s slate was brought up.

Sara Netanyahu then took her husband aside and castigated him for even considering such a move, the witnesses said. “Ayelet Shaked won’t be in Likud. Period,” she reportedly said.

Sara Netanyahu has long been rumored to have outsize influence over political appointments and policy.

Shaked’s political future remains unclear. In April, her New Right party, which she formed along with Naftali Bennett, failed to clear the electoral threshold, leaving her political career in the lurch. But with the failure of coalition talks last week and the announcement of a new election on September 17, the popular right-wing politician appears to have been given a second chance.

Bennett said Sunday evening he would again seek election via the New Right party. Notably, he made the announcement alone, outside his home. When the party was established last December, Bennett and Shaked unveiled it together.

Naftali Bennett, left, and Ayelet Shaked, right. (Flash90)

Likud will be running in the election with a slate similar to the one it presented in April’s vote, and will not hold new primaries, but Netanyahu has the right to reserve several spots on the list.

Shaked’s placement on Likud’s slate was seen as a potential boon for Netanyahu’s party, but Hebrew media reported on Sunday that the prime minister had ruled out any such action.

Also on Sunday evening, Netanyahu said he had no intention of keeping the Justice, Education and Diaspora Affairs portfolios to himself after earlier in the day firing Shaked and Bennett.

A spokeswoman for the prime minister said he had not yet made a decision on new interim ministers, but “will appoint replacements in the next 48 hours, and has no intention of holding one of the freed-up portfolios.”

The firing of Bennett and Shaked was part of a reshuffle of Netanyahu’s interim government, as he gears up for the September elections.

Likud’s Yariv Levin, currently minister of tourism as well as immigration and absorption, has long been angling for the Justice Ministry, but said Sunday he had no interest in serving there in an interim capacity. Netanyahu’s spokeswoman said the prime minister was aware of Levin’s position.

Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties said Sunday evening that Netanyahu should appoint him and URWP head Rafi Peretz to the justice and education ministries, respectively.

“Religious Zionism has one party and it should sit at the cabinet table,” he tweeted.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin arrives at a Likud party meeting on May 28, 2019, in Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The URWP had reportedly sought those portfolios during the coalition negotiations. But with Netanyahu having failed to assemble a government, it was not clear that he would have an incentive to appoint members of the URWP to his interim government.

According to a television report on Saturday, Netanyahu plans to fill the vacated cabinet seats with members of his own Likud party.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not elaborate why the two acting ministers were ousted from their posts. Explaining the sudden termination, officials told Hebrew media the pair could not hold such “sensitive” positions for six months after they failed to be reelected by the public.

The move, however, was widely seen as designed to prevent the once-popular right-wing ministers from using their positions to bolster their campaigns ahead of the snap elections called for September 17.

Likud MK David Bitan acknowledged in an interview that the step was taken to hurt Bennett and Shaked politically. “If they lost the elections, why give them the advantage in their campaign now?” he told the Kan public broadcaster.

Bennett and Shaked are expected to run again in September, though it remains unclear whether they will run together, and if so whether they will do so independently as the New Right or in a merger with other right-wing parties.

Bennet and Shaked were fired hours after the reports emerged that Netanyahu had rejected a call to reserve a slot for Shaked in Likud.

Bezalel Smotrich (R) and Rafi Peretz (L) of the Union of Right Wing Parties hold 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)

Though Bennett and Netanyahu have a long history of political cooperation, the two men have also frequently clashed publicly, sometimes bitterly. Both Bennett and Shaked worked for Netanyahu while he served as opposition leader from 2006 to 2008, but left after reported clashes with his wife.

The prime minister, should he come out ahead again in September’s vote and be tasked with forming a government, could yet find himself dependent on Bennett and Shaked’s support — if they manage to enter the Knesset in the next round.

In a joint statement, Bennett and Shaked said they would cooperate with their replacements in their ministries to ensure a smooth transition.

As part of the reshuffle, Channel 13 news reported Saturday that Netanyahu and his advisers have discussed appointing Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin as immigration and absorption minister to help Likud in its outreach efforts with Russian-speaking Israelis during the September election campaign.

As a native Russian speaker and immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Elkin, Likud believes, can help draw votes away from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, the traditional home of Russian-speaking immigrants.

Netanyahu is reportedly hoping to punish Liberman and even deprive him of the necessary number of votes to enter parliament in retribution for the latter’s refusal to join a coalition under the terms on offer, causing Netanyahu to fail to build a government last week and prompting him to call the new election.

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