Premier has 'cut his ties with religious Zionism'

Seemingly set for opposition, Yamina says this is start of Netanyahu’s downfall

After days of mudslinging, and as talks collapse, official in right-wing party speak scathingly of longtime ally, accusing PM of backstabbing

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a plenum session in the Knesset on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a plenum session in the Knesset on December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The religious right-wing Yamina party on Tuesday launched an extraordinarily strongly worded broadside against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after coalition talks it was holding with Likud once again broke down and the six-seat faction appeared headed to the opposition.

“Today’s date, May 12, will go down in history as the start of Netanyahu’s fall from power,” a Yamina source told the Ynet news site.

“This is the day that Netanyahu has cut his ties with the right wing and religious Zionism, which were his most faithful partners for decades,” the unnamed source was quoted as saying.

“While they showed loyalty to him, he stabbed them in the back.”

The two parties, which are ideologically close and have been political partners for many decades, have been trading accusations for the last few days.

“Last night it became clear at long last that Yamina decided to quit the right-wing bloc,” Likud declared in a statement Tuesday morning.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett’s demands “bear no relation to his party’s electoral size, or to the priorities of religious Zionism,” Likud charged, accusing Yamina of “demanding four senior [cabinet] portfolios that have no connection to religious Zionism.”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Yamina party headquarters on election night in Ramat Gan, on September 17, 2019. (Flash90)

In response, Yamina No. 3 Bezalel Smotrich, the outgoing transportation minister, railed against Netanyahu in a Facebook post, saying the premier had shown a “patronizing, condescending and disrespectful” attitude toward the religious right.

Netanyahu “only sees Netanyahu,” Smotrich said.

He called Likud’s right-wing policies “mediocre,” its diplomacy “acquiescent,” its attitude toward the justice system “weak and submissive,” and its positions on issues of Jewish identity “dithering.”

Smotrich, whose party has faithfully stuck by Netanyahu through three inconclusive elections in which he failed to muster a majority to form a government, said the prime minister “likes [his partners] small, submissive… leaving him the national arena to do with as he pleases as an undisputed leader.”

Netanyahu, he said, was determined to keep religious Zionism “in a sectoral corner” while denying it true influence over central issues of state.

In forty years at the country’s helm, Smotrich charged, Likud had achieved “very limited results in almost every area.”

And he vowed to present from the opposition “a true right-wing alternative” to Netanyahu’s “failures and equivocations.”

Netanyahu had called Bennett on Monday evening to offer the small six-seat party the ministries of education and Jerusalem affairs, a “significant” deputy ministership responsible for national service volunteering, and the Settlement Division overseeing development in West Bank settlements.

Bennett, in turn, demanded the health and transportation ministries, and the chairmanship of the Knesset’s powerful Law, Constitution and Justice Committee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism at a meeting of the heads of the right-religious bloc, at the Knesset, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, Bennett said his party had asked for just two ministries, but was seeking ones with real influence in the next government, which he said was denied them by Likud’s offer.

“Bennett’s refusal to accept [Netanyahu’s] generous offer, which hands Yamina all the issues of importance to the religious Zionist community, demonstrates that the party isn’t interested in ideology, but in seat-ology,” Likud said, referring to cabinet seats.

“It’s a shame that because of internal feuding, Bennett and his friends have decided to join the leftist opposition with [Yesh Atid-Telem’s] Yair Lapid and [the mostly Arab Joint List’s] Heba Yazbak.”

Several Hebrew media sites quoted Bennett, supposedly from his Monday evening call with Netanyahu, accusing the latter of refusing to negotiate.

“You’re not acting toward us as though we’ve been your loyal partners for a very long year. There hasn’t been any serious negotiation. Nothing new was offered in a month and a half [of talks]. You want us on the outside. We will stick to substance, and we will support from the outside any steps that reflect a right-wing agenda.”

Yamina leaders (left to right) Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Rafi Peretz at the party’s election-night headquarters in Ramat Gan on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

On Monday, Bennett claimed Netanyahu did not want Yamina in the next government.

“How do I know? Because Netanyahu and [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz declared the formation of a ‘coronavirus emergency government.’ The most important ministry on this matter is the Health Ministry and they’re fleeing from it with all their might as if this ministry is itself a pandemic,” Bennett said at a press conference.

Blue and White has been rumored to want the health portfolio too, even though the Likud-Blue and White coalition agreement signed on April 20 hands the ministry to Netanyahu’s bloc. Netanyahu has reportedly demanded three of Blue and White’s ministries in exchange, a demand Gantz has so far refused.

If Yamina doesn’t join the government, Bennett said, “we’ll build an alternate model of government” from the opposition benches.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Defense Minister and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a meeting with the heads of right-wing parties in the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He, like Smotrich on Tuesday, accused Netanyahu’s Likud of wanting Yamina to be “irrelevant and without influence.”

Responding, Likud said: “Prime Minister Netanyahu is taking a historic step of applying sovereignty to Judea and Samaria, and instead of taking part in this move, Bennett is giving in to an internal political struggle [within Yamina], is prepared to give up religious Zionism’s place in the government, and is running away from leadership.”

Yamina has been a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc over the past two elections, though the premier and Bennett are widely seen to have a fraught relationship.

Rafi Peretz, left, Bezalel Smotrich, center, and Ayelet Shaked, right, at the Yamina party headquarters on election night in Ramat Gan, September 17, 2019. (Flash90)

The breakdown of talks on Tuesday come after Netanyahu asked Gantz to let him add additional ministries to the new government — bringing the total ministers set to be sworn in on Thursday to 36, the largest ever — in a bid to expand the offer to Yamina.

Yamina’s withdrawal eases Netanyahu’s difficulties within Likud, where a large number of senior MKs are competing for a smaller number of ministries than in the last government. By the terms of the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition agreement, half the cabinet posts of the new government must go to Gantz’s bloc of 19 MKs and half to Netanyahu’s bloc of 59.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed