New Hope MK calls reports 'fake news' by Netanyahu acolytes

Sa’ar’s New Hope said holding talks with Likud over potential new government

As coalition wobbles, Bennett to hold meeting with party leaders; Levin proposes early elections; lawmakers to vote on controversial flag legislation

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar (right). (Flash90)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar (right). (Flash90)

The coalition’s New Hope party is holding behind-the-scenes talks with the opposition Likud over options for a potential alternate government, Hebrew-language media reported on Wednesday.

According to the Ynet news site, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, a former senior member of Likud who broke away to form New Hope, is in contact with an associate of opposition leader Benjamin 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.

New Hope MK Meir Yitzhak Halevi dismissed the reports as “fake news” being spread by Netanyahu acolytes.

Before the Marhc 2021 elections, Sa’ar based much of his party’s platform on a refusal to join a government under Netanyahu. “Whoever wants Netanyahu to continue as prime minister, I ask of them: Do not vote for me,” Sa’ar said in a TV interview on the eve of the vote.

Channel 12 news reported Tuesday that Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a former confidant of Netanyahu who jumped ship from Likud to New Hope in 2020, is also in talks with his former political home. Elkin has denied the report.

The coalition has a number of senior members who are former Netanyahu allies, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked of Yamina, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) speaks with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar in the Knesset on June 16, 2021. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

In the wake of the reports on the talks, Bennett called a meeting for later on Wednesday with all coalition party heads.

The reported talks between officials from New Hope and Likud came days after the coalition postponed a bill headed by Sa’ar to renew the extension of Israeli criminal and some civil law to Israelis living in the West Bank, just hours before it was set to come up for its first vote, after opposition parties pledged not to support any government-sponsored legislation.

Sa’ar later threatened that the coalition could collapse if the law does not pass next week. Failure to renew the law would have far-reaching legal consequences, defaulting to martial law for Israelis living beyond the Green Line.

“Next week will be the test for whether this coalition wants to exist or if it doesn’t want to,” Sa’ar told Kan news. “This vote will show this.”

The wobbling coalition is expected to come under further pressure Wednesday with a vote on a controversial bill that would outlaw the display of enemy flags — including the Palestinian flag — at universities or government institutions. Ministers have decided that lawmakers will be able to vote their conscience on the Likud-sponsored legislation.

Passage of the bill would anger the coalition’s left-wing flank.

Meanwhile, it was reported Tuesday that the coalition rejected an offer by Likud faction chair Yariv Levin for elections to be brought forward to sometime between December 2022 and May 2023.

Then-Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin at the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the Channel 13 report, Levin told coalition officials their lack of Knesset majority meant they will not be able to pass a budget, and offered that in exchange for the new election date, the opposition-leading Likud party will stop automatically blocking legislation in the coming months.

According to law, the budget for 2023 must be passed by March 31 of next year. If the budget does not pass, the government automatically dissolves and elections will be held.

In November the coalition had claimed victory after passing a state budget for the first time in more than three years — for both 2021 and 2022. The spending plan for 2021 was the first budget Israel passed since 2018, due to a prolonged political deadlock that saw successive governments fall before they could bring a budget proposal to the Knesset.

According to a poll commissioned by Channel 12 last week, if an election were held now, Netanyahu’s opposition bloc would win 59 seats, just shy of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The parties in the governing coalition would be reduced to 55 seats, according to the poll.

The Arab-majority Joint List faction, which is in the opposition but is against Netanyahu and his bloc of right-wing and religious parties, would hold the balance with six seats.

The Likud moves come as the opposition actively attempts to overthrow Bennett’s coalition. The already fragile government has been teetering since Yamina lawmaker Idit Silman jumped ship last month, stripping Bennett’s government of its single-seat parliamentary majority.

Bennett’s coalition has struggled to keep its MKs and parties in check in recent weeks, bringing the government to the brink of collapse amid a series of tiffs over policy positions and security tensions.

MKs Idit Silman (R) and Nir Orbach arrive for a Yamina faction meeting at the Knesset on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Likud party looked poised last week to bring a bill to disperse the Knesset and force fresh elections to the plenum floor, but eventually did not do so. The opposition party had considered trying for the bill after Meretz lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi briefly quit the coalition, but her swift return to the political alliance a few days later made the move unlikely to be successful.

Likud had previously planned to bring a dispersal bill up for a vote two weeks ago, but pulled it after the Ra’am party returned to the coalition’s ranks, killing the opposition’s chances of passing the bill in its preliminary reading.

Although the dispersal bill only needs a simple majority of voting MKs to pass its preliminary reading, if it were to fail the opposition would be barred from bringing it up again for six months.

Sitting at a 60-60 seat parity with the coalition, the opposition has been looking for angles to end a government it criticizes as having lost its legitimacy to govern, but to date does not have the numbers to force change.

A Knesset dispersal bill is one of three ways to topple the government. The others are a successful no-confidence vote of at least 61 MKs and a government’s failure to pass a timely budget.

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