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Sa’ar denies Likud talks, but says vote to renew civil law for settlers must pass

Minister says it’s those refusing to support legislation who are putting the coalition at risk; thinks current government is still least bad option, but it must be able to govern

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar arrives at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, for a group photo of the newly sworn in Israeli government, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar arrives at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, for a group photo of the newly sworn in Israeli government, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar on Wednesday dismissed “fake news” reports that his New Hope party is in talks with the opposition Likud to form an alternative coalition within the current Knesset.

“There were no negotiations, there are no negotiations and if I was thinking of changing my position, which I am not, then I would openly go before the public and explain why I changed my mind,” said Sa’ar, a longtime Likud-MK who left the party and started his own faction over his opposition to the continued leadership of chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sa’ar made the assertion in an interview with Channel 12, but he pushed the same message in interviews with the other major news broadcasters — the Kan public broadcaster and Channe 13 — and all three aired during primetime.

The media blitz came hours after the Ynet news site reported that Sa’ar was in contact with an associate of  Netanyahu, Yaakov Atrakchi. The report said that amid the talks, Likud has ordered a reduction in public attacks on Sa’ar.

Unnamed sources, who were said to have knowledge of the matter, said Sa’ar would be offered a senior portfolio in a potential Netanyahu-led government, such as the Foreign Ministry.

Reminded that before previous elections he said he wouldn’t join a government with Netanyahu, and asked to explicitly repeat that pledge, Sa’ar told Channel 12, “my stance hasn’t changed.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, on November 21, 2005. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

He refused three times to explicitly repeat that he wouldn’t sit with Netanyahu but then criticized the opposition leader for refusing to support legislation extending Israeli civil and criminal law to West Bank settlers.

Sa’ar has said that if the bill is not passed, Israeli settlers will be subject to the same military legal system as Palestinians, which he has described as a catastrophic outcome. Under the terms of the bill, Palestinians remain under a separate military justice system.

“For his personal interest, Netanyahu is waging a campaign against a core national interest of the state of Israel,” Sa’ar said.

Evidently, Netanyahu hasn’t changed, said Sa’ar, and “thus my stance [against sitting with him in government] hasn’t changed either… and I can’t see a circumstance in which it would.”

He used the TV interviews to explain his party’s position in favor of the bill re-extending civil law to West Bank settlers and his warning earlier this week that the coalition would not survive if it failed to pass the legislation.

Unnamed coalition members speaking to Channel 12 criticized Sa’ar for what they described as threats, saying his strategy was making it more difficult for the Islamist Ra’am and left-wing Meretz to back the civil law measure.

Sa’ar told Channel 12 that whoever aimed the criticism at him was a coward for hiding behind anonymity, and made his own jab at his coalition partners for failing to fully support the measure, which he claimed would create massive legal headaches.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin attends a Knesset committee meeting on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“When I’m fighting for the bill, I’m fighting for the coalition’s existence. Anyone who does not support the bill wants the coalition to not exist,” he said. “I’m committed to this coalition, but if this coalition is to exist it has to govern.”

“We have to do the maximum to avoid unnecessary elections,” he went on, and this coalition “is the least bad option — we fought for it — but that’s if it is able to govern.”

Earlier Wednesday, Meretz MK Michal Rozin said her party will back the bill, which has posed the latest test for the fragile coalition.

Rozin said her faction’s support is based on coalition agreements to not make any major changes in the status quo regarding the Palestinians, a key component of the pact holding the disparate government together.

The decision left Ra’am as the only apparent holdout against the bill within the coalition. While the Kan public broadcaster reported that Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas would back it, it was not clear whether the rest of the party would get behind him. If they did not, it was unlikely that rebel Meretz MK Ghaida Renawie Zoabi — who last month announced her resignation from the coalition only to walk it back days later — would vote for the bill either, Kan said.

Meanwhile, the television network reported lingering tension at a meeting called by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with other party leaders in the ruling coalition of left, center, right-wing and Arab factions on Wednesday morning.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas (right) speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) and Ra’am MK Walid Taha during a plenum session in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sources said Sa’ar was “irritable” at the meeting, warning that it is not possible to continue a government when every coalition party does as it pleases. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid then reportedly confronted Sa’ar, saying to him: “The question is how do we deal with this, and do you want to solve it or break it [the government] apart?”

Coalition leaders were said to be puzzled by Sa’ar’s stance on the matter, believing the differences between them can be resolved.

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