Religious Zionism’s Smotrich says he’ll back Netanyahu as PM

Party leader says Likud chief is committed to strengthening settlements, judicial reform; Joint List MKs to present Lapid with demands in return for supporting him

Leader of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Leader of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Religious Zionism party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich said Tuesday that his party will back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form and lead the next government on the basis of an agreement between them that the country will embrace a right-wing agenda.

Smotrich said support from his party’s six MKs will be given due to Netanyahu’s commitment “in an agreement signed with us” to establish a “right-wing government that will preserve the Jewish identity of the country, strengthen the [West Bank] settlements, and carry out needed reforms of the judicial system.”

Smotrich, whose party includes two extremist factions — the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit headed by Itamar Ben Gvir, and the anti-LGBT Noam — called on all nationalist parties “to turn over a new leaf,” put aside self-interest and cooperate to back Netanyahu.

He warned that any other option would lead to a “bad and dangerous” outcome for the country and said he would “leave no stone unturned” to ensure a right-wing government is formed.

The Religious Zionism leader’s declaration came as the main Arab Israeli party, the Joint List alliance of three parties, was preparing to meet Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid, who is working to gain enough backing from anti-Netanyahu parties to oust the prime minister and take over the office.

Joint List leaders are expected to meet Thursday with Lapid and have formed a list of demands in return for their support, a Joint List source said Tuesday.

Another party source, however, said that the meeting was not yet final. The holdout is likely Sami Abou Shehadeh, from the Palestinian nationalist Balad party, who has expressed reluctance to consider supporting Lapid in the past.

According to an Army Radio report, the Joint List will tell Lapid it wants a freeze on the controversial Jewish nation-state law and on legislation seen as targeting for demolition Arab buildings constructed illegally, as well as a commitment to crack down on violence and crime in the Arab community. In addition, the party will ask that peace negotiations be opened with the Palestinians, although that demand is not a make-or-break condition for the party’s support, according to the report.

The party has also decided that it will not support anyone else as prime minister except Lapid, the station said. However, a formal declaration of support for Lapid will only come once it is clear that he has enough support from other parties, according to the report.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Army Radio reported that Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Ra’am party, is considering making public declarations in the hope of mollifying the voices opposing him on the right and paving the way for talks with Likud.

Neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu blocs have a clear path to forming a majority coalition after the March 23 vote, the fourth national election in two years. However, the prospect of a fifth election has spurred speculation that unlikely bedfellows could come together in an effort to oust Netanyahu or, alternatively, to enable him to retain power.

Abbas, whose Islamist party won four seats in the inconclusive elections and who has not ruled out an alliance with Netanyahu, has found himself as a possible kingmaker. But Religious Zionism MKs as well as some in Likud have already said they will refuse to cooperate with Ra’am, citing its anti-Zionist positions.

Lapid met with Abbas on Sunday. The Arab website Panet reported Monday that a member of the Blue and White party, Elham Khazen, who was not elected to the Knesset in last week’s vote, met with Abbas and asked him to not back Lapid for prime minister, but rather her party’s leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Gantz on Tuesday told the Ynet website that the meeting was “a tactical mistake” and said he only heard about it after the fact. Khazen had acted “in good faith and out of political innocence,” Gantz said. He noted that he had stressed to all members that he will lead Blue and White’s coalition negotiations with other parties.

Head of the Blue and White party and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz speaks at the Blue and White party headquarters in Ramat Gan, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Gantz said he sees both Lapid and Yamina party leader MK Naftali Bennett as suitable candidates to form a coalition and that he does not rule out any option that will replace Netanyahu.

Bennett and fellow right-wing party leader Gideon Sa’ar, the New Hope chief, both declared before the election that they each want to replace Netanyahu and they would not back centrist Lapid as prime minister.

However, Sa’ar may now join a government led by Lapid, if he rotates the premiership with Bennett, sources told Kan news on Monday.

While Sa’ar said in the run-up to last week’s elections that Lapid will not be prime minister, he later refused to rule out sitting in a government led by the Yesh Atid chief. Bennett has pledged not to sit in a government headed in any way by Lapid— solely or via a power-sharing agreement.

The centrist Yesh Atid is the largest party in the “change bloc” of factions opposed to Netanyahu with 17 seats. Fellow anti-Netanyahu party New Hope has six seats while Yamina, which has not committed to any bloc, has seven.

Netanyahu’s Likud won 30 seats making it the largest party, but is still only able to muster 59 seats among its obvious allies.

President Reuven Rivlin is set to begin meeting with party leaders next week to hear their recommendations for who should be given the first chance to form a government coalition.

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