Right-wing religious parties renew pledge to back Netanyahu as PM

Yamina, Shas, United Torah Judaism stress commitment to endorse Likud leader after March elections; Blue and White warns pact will lead to 4th elections

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, right, speaks to Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri during a meeting with right-wing bloc parties at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, right, speaks to Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri during a meeting with right-wing bloc parties at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Right-wing religious parties allied with Likud on Sunday again declared their loyalty to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, putting their signatures to a document pledging to back him for premier after next month’s national election.

The letter was signed by Yamina, United Torah Judaism, and Shas. It was initiated by Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri, the head of Shas.

“We’ll only support Netanyahu. We are convinced that the right-wing bloc will succeed in getting 61 seats in the elections and assembling a strong nationalist government for the people of Israel,” the letter said.

Netanyahu cheered the move, saying it was the “nail in the coffin of [Benny] Gantz’s bluff,” in reference to the prospects of his rival, the leader of the Blue and White party, of forming a governing coalition.

Blue and White, meanwhile, said the right-wing pact would drive Israel to an additional round of elections after the March 2 vote — the fourth since April 2019.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents the Likud economic plan, during a party event in Tel Aviv on February 16, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Following the September elections, the three right-wing and religious parties together with Likud agreed to operate as a single bloc of 55 MKs headed by Netanyahu in the coalition talks. The bloc became a major obstacle in negotiations with the centrist Blue and White party, which had campaigned on forming a unity government with Likud, without the religious parties.

Polls have consistently forecast that the right-wing parties will again come short of a majority (61 seats) in the upcoming March elections, likely portending further political deadlock.

Blue and White is also unlikely to be able to cobble together a coalition without Likud, but has ruled out partnering with the prime minister, who is under criminal indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Despite the charges, Netanyahu’s right-wing allies have not deserted him and Likud lawmakers have made no move to replace their long-serving leader.

The renewed right-wing alliance was condemned by Blue and White on Sunday.

“The bloc is leading to another round of elections… Netanyahu does not have a government, just as he hasn’t had one after the two elections that he has pushed Israel into, at the cost of NIS 8 billion, simply to avoid prosecution,” the party said.

Gantz, addressing a political rally on Sunday night, said the loyalty pledge “is not worth the paper it’s written on.”

“If Blue and White wins by a large margin of seats, the bloc[k] of ice will melt through his [Netanyahu’s] fingers,” Gantz said during a campaign event at Kibbutz Evron.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Saturday said he expects Netanyahu to resign after the March 2 election, adding, “Everyone is preparing for what happens after Netanyahu leaves.”

At a speaking event in Shoham, east of Tel Aviv, Liberman repeated his assertion that “the Netanyahu era is over” and said the premier was “in denial. There will come a day when he too will realize it’s time to hang up his hat.”

He claimed even Yamina party leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who “say they’ll only join a Netanyahu government… the only thing they dream of is how to form a government without him.”

Liberman, whose lack of outright support for Netanyahu or his rival Gantz has been the deciding factor in failed efforts to build a coalition after the April and September elections, and who is projected to remain the potential kingmaker after the March repeat, said ultra-Orthodox parties were also now open to partnering with Blue and White. (The two ultra-Orthodox parties repeatedly deny this.)

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz, right and Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman give a joint statement to the media after a meeting for coalition negotiations at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on November 14, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I saw Uri Maklev [of United Torah Judaism] say there’s no problem with Blue and White. You can ask [Shas leader Aryeh] Deri how many times he’s sat down with [Blue and White’s] Gabi Ashkenazi recently.”

Likud in a statement said, “The cat is out of the bag. Liberman is going with the left, along with Gantz and [the Joint List’s] Ahmad Tibi.”

Liberman has repeatedly ruled out joining a coalition with the predominantly Arab Joint List.

On Thursday, Liberman said he would not rule out sitting in a government with the predominantly leftist Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance after the coming elections and appeared to drop his previous demand for a unity government of the Likud and Blue and White parties.

On Saturday, he added that the hard-left Meretz party “doesn’t exist” anymore as an independent party, having merged with the centrist-leaning Labor-Gesher. “It makes it much easier.”

Liberman, whose party is predicted to win seven or eight seats in the March 2 election, further said he was prepared to join a coalition led by Gantz.

“It all depends on the baseline,” he said referring to his demands for greater rights for the secular community in a country where marriage, divorce, and conversion rituals are controlled by Orthodox parties.

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

Yisrael Beytenu had enough seats to carry Netanyahu past the 61-seat minimum he needed following the April and September elections, but Liberman instead insisted on a unity government formed of Likud, Blue and White, and his Yisrael Beytenu party.

Netanyahu and Gantz, both given a shot at forming a government in September, failed to reach agreements on a unity government.

However, Liberman indicated Thursday that he will no longer make that demand after the coming election.

“It is clear that a unity government will not be formed. It didn’t happen the previous two times,” he said.

Even with the support of Liberman, Gantz would likely need defecting lawmakers from the right-wing bloc to form a majority government or the external support of the predominantly Arab Joint List for a minority government.

Despite Liberman’s support, Gantz does not appear to have a path to a government unless his party surges dramatically in the March 2 vote, as the Joint List said that it would not back him unless he rejects elements of the Trump peace plan. Gantz, earlier this week, said his government would not extend an invitation to the Joint List — which has never sat in a coalition. The Joint List also ruled out sitting in a government with the right-wing Liberman.

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