Sidelined in unity talks, religious right may be better off walking away

Why the Yamina party could wield more influence over the next government from the opposition than from the cabinet table

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

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)
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)

The right-wing religious-Zionist Yamina party is watching the unity talks now underway between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz with growing frustration and fear.

Netanyahu has won Gantz’s agreement to a limited annexation in the West Bank, though the actual extent is not yet clear. On the issue of judicial reform, which is central to Yamina’s agenda, Netanyahu seems to have ceded ground, with Gantz refusing to allow changes to the structure of the Judicial Appointments Committee even as his party takes control of the Justice Ministry.

In its public statements over the past week, Yamina hasn’t been subtle about its frustration over the relinquishing of judicial reform to Blue and White, nor its skepticism over whether Netanyahu really plans to implement any annexation.

On April 2, as the Netanyahu-Gantz unity deal was coming into focus, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked blasted Netanyahu for “violating all right-wing values…. Despite the loyalty we showed for a year and a half, Likud seems to be throwing us away again.”

Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked arrives to cast her vote at a voting station in Tel Aviv during the Knesset elections on March 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In another statement that day, the party claimed Netanyahu had sold out on both judicial reform and annexation, with the developing coalition agreement’s promise of annexation amounting to “some vague statement about sovereignty that says nothing, and worse, delays annexation [by roughly three months] till it’s too close to the American elections.”

The party had “no intention of being a fig leaf in a leftist government,” it warned.

Petty politics

Yamina has claimed its opposition to the emerging deal is about substance. That’s partly true. But Yamina also has a less noble and more immediate problem with the possible Netanyahu-Gantz union: Netanyahu has promised Gantz’s 19 MKs (Blue and White’s 15, Labor’s 2 and Derech Eretz’s 2) fully half the ministries of the next government, or between 15 and 17 cabinet posts. Nearly every MK in Gantz’s loose centrist alliance will become a minister.

Six-seat Yamina, meanwhile, will be lucky to get two ministries.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett attends the campaign launch of the right-wing Yamina party, ahead of the March 2, 2020, elections, on February 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It’s not just the look of the thing. Without more cabinet posts, the party will have a hard time making the case in its next election campaign that it is an influential part of the right.

Then, too, there’s the matter of Yamina’s many disparate parts. It is not actually a party, but a union of several right-wing factions — Jewish Home, National Union, New Right, and some other parties nested within those. To hold itself together it must ensure its many parts feel they have a seat at the table — at the cabinet table, that is. With just two ministries, some of those factions will find themselves left out.

No wonder, then, that Yamina has been actively working to disrupt the unity talks.

In a statement Sunday, as the Gantz-Netanyahu talks appeared stalled, Yamina tried to sow distrust between the sides.

“Gantz, it’s no shame to concede,” the statement began. “Your demands from the start, as someone who leads a 17-seat faction [negotiating] with a 59-seat bloc, were nonsensical and illegitimate by any democratic rationale.”

An election poster hung by the Blue and White party shows their candidate Benny Gantz and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The statement ignored the fact that Gantz did not have 17 seats “from the start,” but the 33 of the larger Blue and White alliance and the support of a slim majority of the Knesset as a whole. He was reduced to 17 seats only because he agreed to the unity talks with Netanyahu, based on Netanyahu’s promises of equal influence and cabinet posts.

“We call on you to show responsibility, to join a national unity government led by Netanyahu, to give up the justice portfolio and the Judicial Appointments Committee, and to allow the application of sovereignty to all the settlements immediately, as an absolute majority of the future coalition’s members desire. That’s the essence of democracy.”

It was not a statement geared to convince Gantz to compromise, but rather to stoke suspicion, to remind Gantz that Netanyahu may go back on his promises, and to suggest that if Gantz concedes a little, the intact right-wing bloc may then demand he surrender everything.

It was also a sign of desperation, and both Netanyahu and Gantz ignored it.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina in the plenum hall of the Knesset on February 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina is still wedded to the idea that it must remain a member of Netanyahu’s coalition. But as its diminishing coalition prospects and growing anxiety make clear, it is becoming less and less obvious that it will have any political or policy influence in a unity government.

It has threatened repeatedly to go to the opposition, thinking this might frighten Netanyahu into handing it more cabinet posts and influence. But what would happen if Yamina decided to actually make good on its threat?

A loyal opposition

Perhaps the most startling argument for going to the opposition came during the negotiations on Monday, when the two sides, acknowledging Netanyahu’s predicament of a right-wing base angered by his compromises on judicial reform, began looking for a solution.

Gantz has refused to substantially alter the workings of the Judicial Appointments Committee, calling the issue “fundamental.” The stakes are indeed high for both liberals and conservatives. The next six appointments to the 15-member Supreme Court all come up for a vote in the lifespan of the next government.

Illustrative: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a High Court preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Conflicting rumors have emerged from individuals close to the negotiating teams about a possible solution. One version of the emerging compromise offers a fascinating insight into Yamina’s possible role in the opposition.

It goes something like this.

Under a 2002 law, the committee that appoints Israel’s judges is composed of nine members: three Supreme Court justices, two representatives of the Knesset (traditionally one from the coalition and one from the opposition), two cabinet ministers, and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association.

Crucially, seven votes are required to confirm a judge. That is, the three-member Supreme Court delegation holds a veto on nominations to the Supreme Court, and the veto is real: the three justices have never divided their votes.

But the majority coalition in the Knesset also holds a veto, with two cabinet ministers and at least one MK.

Then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked seen with then-chief justice Miriam Naor, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and members of the Judicial Appointments Committee at a meeting of the committee at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The right has good reason to be frustrated by Netanyahu’s conceding of the Justice Ministry to Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn. The justice minister chairs the committee. Even if the second cabinet member and the coalition MK all come from Likud, as is likely, the second MK will be from the opposition, possibly Yesh Atid. In other words, the right, though it will dominate the government and can win its annexation, will lose its veto — in effect, any say at all — on the identity of six of the top court’s fifteen justices.

Enter Yamina.

One compromise now being considered assumes that the sidelined, frustrated party heads to the opposition — and its former justice minister Shaked is selected as the opposition representative on the committee.

Suddenly, miraculously, everything falls into place for all parties.

Gantz defended the committee from conservative reforms; Netanyahu can claim he denied the liberals a blank check on appointing over a third of the nation’s top court. The ideological right gets its veto; so do the justices.

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)

It’s the sort of solution Gantz prefers, in line with how he conducted the past month of negotiations – force belligerent, posturing parties to quiet compromise by handing everyone a veto over everyone else’s agenda.

And it lets an oppositionist Yamina make the case in the next election that it sacrificed posts and honorifics to defend the right’s most vital ideological and policy priorities.

The compromise described above is not final, of course. The coalition deal is not done, and Yamina has not yet decided to go to the opposition. It would be a major step for the party, an undoing of Netanyahu’s loyal right-wing bloc. It’s not yet clear if Yamina would be rewarded at the ballot box for such a move or punished in the next election for abandoning Netanyahu’s side. The party is surely commissioning polls on that question even now.

But the very fact that the idea arose in the discussions illustrates the strange situation Yamina is in: relegated to an unheeded and minor role if it sticks by Netanyahu, but serving as a potentially influential source of support for right-wing ideas and policies from the opposition.

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