Ra'am's Abbas: 'Likud offered us a full coalition deal'

Smotrich: Netanyahu ‘lying through his teeth,’ was desperate to ally with Ra’am

In recording, Religious Zionism chief says former PM is ‘trouble’ and may yet be found guilty in trial; wants any benefits to Arab public to come from ‘us, the state, the Jews’

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a conference of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce in Tel Aviv, on October 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a conference of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce in Tel Aviv, on October 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In a recording aired Sunday by Israeli television, far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich is heard saying opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu “desperately wanted” to ally with the Islamist Ra’am party after the elections last year, and that the former prime minister was “lying through his teeth” for denying this.

Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionism party, also called Netanyahu “trouble” and said he may yet be found guilty in his criminal trial, according to the tape played by the Kan public broadcaster, which reported the comments were made in a conversation during the past year.

Netanyahu is widely reported to have made Ra’am generous offers to clinch its support for him forming a government after the March 2021 elections, but Smotrich ruled out such an alliance at the time, and Netanyahu later denied ever seeking it. Ra’am, an Islamist party, joined the coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which collapsed after a year, triggering next week’s elections.

Since the now-outgoing government was formed last June, Netanyahu and his Likud party have railed against its inclusion of Ra’am, claiming the coalition was leaning on the backing of “terror supporters” — though Ra’am has repeatedly condemned terror.

“If I’d wanted to take two parliamentary seats from Bibi, I should have laid into him,” Smotrich said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He’s lying through his teeth. He didn’t want to go with Ra’am? He was desperate to. I’m the only one who stood in the way.”

But since Netanyahu is denying it, Smotrich said, “I’m toeing the line. I don’t lie when I’m interviewed [about it]. I say, I’m not concerned with the past — it’s not important.”

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

He added that “even if he [Netanyahu] was willing to give them a bit less” than the current coalition, “it doesn’t make a difference. The moment he agrees to form a government with them, in the end he’s dependent on them. At first, he’d have given them less, and later, he’d have given them everything; otherwise, they’d have brought him down and we’d go to elections.”

But Smotrich said he is “going along with his narrative now because it serves what I believe is right for the people of Israel.”

Religious Zionism is part of the right-religious bloc led by Netanyahu, who is seeking to regain power in next week’s elections. Recent polls have shown the alliance on the cusp of a majority on November 1, when Israelis will go to the polls for the fifth time since April 2019 due to extended parliamentary gridlock.

As for why he opposes Ra’am’s inclusion, despite the party’s stated desire to set aside the Palestinian issue and focus on civil matters, Smotrich said he wants to help the Arab public, but does not want Arab parties to achieve things, as this would “puff up the chests” of the Arab public.

He said he wants any benefits for Arabs to come from “us, the state, the Jews.”

Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas leads a discussion and a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, June 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Smotrich also said Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, will leave the political scene eventually.

“Netanyahu won’t stay forever,” he said. “Physics and biology will take their course. Eventually, he’ll be found guilty in court or I don’t know what. We need a little patience.”

“There’s no doubt that Netanyahu is trouble, alright? But now you have to choose between troubles.”

In his initial response to the broadcast of the recording, Smotrich told Kan that he and Netanyahu “work and cooperate fully and closely,” while suggesting the recording’s release was meant to stoke discord between them ahead of the elections.

He later released a separate statement saying the recording was “old” and that he had spoken with Netanyahu about it.

“We won’t allow anyone to sow conflict between us. We will work together and form a Jewish, national and Zionist government,” he said. Last week, Smotrich set out a variety of planned judicial reforms, one of which, his call for the abolition of the legal offense of “fraud and breach of trust,” could potentially help bring Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trial to an end.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, released a statement calling on Smotrich and his electoral partner Itamar Ben Gvir — with whom Smotrich is running on a joint slate — “to hold the friendly fire.”

“The fight in the national camp is against [Prime Minister] Lapid and the terror-supporting Muslim Brotherhood,” Netanyahu said, referring to Ra’am.

Echoing a call he made last week, Netanyahu urged right-wing voters to back Likud in the upcoming election, after several surveys showed his party bleeding votes to Religious Zionism.

“A big Likud is needed to form a stable right-wing government that you will be part of in any case,” he said to Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at a Channel 12 conference in Rishon LeZion, October 20, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In the run-up to previous elections, Netanyahu similarly appealed to supporters to vote Likud instead of other factions in his right-religious bloc, as he sought to best position himself to get the first shot at forming a government after ballots are cast.

The spat over the recording erupted hours after Netanyahu said Ben Gvir “can certainly” be a minister if he forms a government after the elections, in a reversal of his previous position that the far-right politician was not “fit” to serve in the cabinet.

Ben Gvir also responded to Smotrich’s comments in the recording, criticizing his partner.

“I didn’t like what was said,” Ben Gvir said at a campaign event. “I have criticism of Netanyahu… but… definitely not in a style like this.”

Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas said the recording was “further evidence” that he was right in asserting Netanyahu offered his party lavish terms in exchange for its support.

“Likud offered us a full coalition deal and promised us a political and strategic partnership,” he told Channel 12 news.

“I’ll continue to promote civil partnership for the benefit of Arab society and for all of Israeli society,” Abbas said.

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