Report: Netanyahu gives up hope of Smotrich joining a Ra’am-backed coalition

PM said turning his attention to pressuring Gideon Sa’ar to join him; Katz’s political adviser said to propose mandate be passed to finance minister

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)

Unnamed senior officials from the Likud party told Kan news on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given up on the possibility of persuading the far-right Religious Zionism party to join a coalition supported in any way by the Islamist Ra’am party.

According to the report, Netanyahu is now convinced that party chairman Bezalel Smotrich has no intention of changing his mind and agreeing to join a government that would have even the outside backing of Ra’am, and the prime minister will instead turn his attentions to persuading New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar to join his government.

A central plank of Sa’ar’s electoral campaign was the formation of a right-wing government, but not under Netanyahu. Sa’ar has repeatedly vowed since the election that he will not join Netanyahu.

Religious Zionism has firmly ruled out any kind of partnership with Ra’am, which would likely doom Netanyahu’s prospects of forming a coalition. But a Sunday report said Smotrich had ordered a poll gauging whether its supporters would back a right-wing government that would rely on outside support from the party.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas at the party’s headquarters in Tamra on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

According to the poll’s findings, slightly more than 50 percent of Religious Zionism supporters say they would prefer such a coalition over a fifth consecutive election, the Walla news site reported.

The question was reportedly couched in an internal survey among a series of questions about the election and coalition negotiations. Religious Zionism denied the report, which did not cite sources.

Several Ra’am officials in recent weeks have also ruled out working with Religious Zionism, home to far-right extremists.

Kan also reported that Netanyahu is telling associates that Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett is deliberately hindering negotiations so that he can avoid a coalition with Likud.

Channel 12 news reported Friday that Bennett had so far agreed to rotate the premiership with Netanyahu in a government backed by Ra’am, but only if Smotrich is on board. The network said, however, that Likud sources were denying Yamina’s assertion that Netanyahu made Bennett such an offer.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett arrives for coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It also claimed that, despite all the machinations, Netanyahu believes that Bennett is only going through the motions with him and has already decided to join forces with opposition chief Yair Lapid.

Meanwhile, Kan said Monday that a political adviser to Finance Minister Israel Katz had proposed in an internal WhatsApp group that Netanyahu pass the mandate to form a government to Katz, as this was “the most correct and most realistic [path] for a full right-wing government.”

Amnon Ben Ami additionally suggested that, in return, Knesset members elect Netanyahu as president in the coming weeks, with expanded powers giving him full authority over foreign affairs, the report said.

Katz said in response to the report that he had no knowledge of the proposal, but that if it was true, he would take steps against his adviser, perhaps even suspending him from the job.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to then-foreign minister, now finance minister, Israel Katz, during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

The Walla news site reported Saturday that Netanyahu is afraid that senior Likud lawmakers could rebel and try to form a government headed by someone else if he does not succeed in the task himself.

The right-wing New Hope has not ruled out Likud as a party, only Netanyahu, giving rise to scenarios in which Netanyahu relinquishes power and becomes either president or alternate prime minister, enabling Sa’ar’s party to join and form a right-wing majority coalition headed by another Likud member.

President Reuven Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with forming a government last week, after the premier received more recommendations than any other lawmaker from parties that won representation in the Knesset in the March 23 vote.

Netanyahu, with 52 recommendations, still did not receive a majority of backers in the 120-seat Knesset, however, and neither he nor the bloc of parties opposing his continued rule have a clear path to a governing coalition, leading to fears of a fifth rapid-fire election.

To reach a majority, Netanyahu needs the active support or outside backing of the right-wing Yamina, the Islamist Ra’am, and Religious Zionism.

Multiple — and mostly improbable — scenarios have been floated on how to reach the magic number of 61, including relying on outside support from Ra’am, despite opposition from right-wing lawmakers; trying to recruit “defectors” from other parties; and trying to get Sa’ar’s New Hope party to join such a coalition.

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope political party, speaks during a Channel 12 News conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

If Netanyahu does not succeed in forming a government within 28 days, the president can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government.

Rivlin has intimated that he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election, which would be the fifth in under three years.

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