Squabbling among right-wing parties persists after Netanyahu-Smotrich scrap

Likud’s Regev and Yamina chair Shaked call each other ‘opportunistic’ over past attempts to join ruling party, prolonging row after Smotrich apologized for diatribe against PM

Miri Regev, left, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset on November 13, 2016. Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Miri Regev, left, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset on November 13, 2016. Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Politicians from the ruling Likud party and the religious right-wing Yamina party traded barbs Tuesday morning in the aftermath of an incident that almost saw a firebrand minister fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the previous day.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich apologized Monday for a Twitter diatribe against Netanyahu, with the premier’s party saying Smotrich would have been removed from his cabinet post if he did not walk back his comments.

Smotrich had assailed Netanyahu on Sunday over the temporary closure of the Temple Mount holy site to Jewish visitors and a court ruling barring a gender-segregated concert from being held at a public park in Afula, accusing him of being “weak” and showing “zero leadership.”

Netanyahu was reportedly angered by the remarks and considered firing Smotrich, but after the two met Monday the transportation minister retained his job and seat on the high-level security cabinet.

The spat between the two right-wing parties continued Tuesday morning as Ayelet Shaked, chairwoman of Yamina — previously called United Right — attacked Culture Minister Miri Regev of Likud, who had mocked her for “begging” to join the ruling party and being turned down.

Yamina party leader and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked speaks to supporters during an election campaign event in Ramat Gan, August 12, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Accusing Regev of thwarting her joining Likud, Shaked told Army Radio: “Miri Regev invented the word ‘opportunism’ in politics. She debated between joining the Labor party or Likud and passionately advocated the [2005] disengagement from Gaza” as IDF spokeswoman.

Shaked also accused Regev of falsely saying that there was a political alliance between Yamina’s No. 4 Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid of the centrist Blue and White party. During coalition talks following the 2013 election, and in the government that was then formed, Bennett and Lapid — each then head of a party — had formed an alliance.

When Shaked and Bennett’s New Right party narrowly missed out on entering the Knesset in the April elections, “my plan was to join Likud,” Shaked said. “Regev was afraid, contacted senior Likud members and said she didn’t want that to happen. I propose ignoring her words; they are background noise.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK David Bitan (R) at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on June 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier, Regev told Army Radio that Netanyahu opposed Shaked joining Likud and that she didn’t trust her and Bennett to support Netanyahu as premier.

Following Shaked’s response, Regev tweeted: “I see something has aggravated Ayelet Shaked — the truth. The woman who left a party with huge debt returns to it after an election failure. If that isn’t opportunism, I don’t know what is.”

In his apology Monday for his remarks against Netanyahu, Smotrich, No. 3 in United Right, said in a statement: “Out of true sorrow, things were said in a way that was inappropriate, especially given the relationship between a prime minister and a minister in his government, and for that I am sorry.”

Smotrich said that while there is room for criticism of the prime minister, it should not boil over into personal attacks. “I accept this,” he said.

Praising Netanyahu’s record as prime minister and dubbing him “the leader of the right,” Smotrich said his party has always supported the premier and would continue to do so. He added, however, a pledge not to hold back in the future if he felt criticism was necessary.

“When he needs to be criticized we’ll criticize him and no one, I mean no one, under any threat, will silence this criticism,” he said.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich gives a speech at the Yamina electoral alliance’s campaign launch, in Ramat Gan, on August 12, 2019. (Flash90)

According to Likud, Netanyahu had threatened to fire Smotrich during a dressing-down meeting Monday if he did not apologize. According to reports, several senior Likud lawmakers had lobbied Netanyahu to push out Smotrich.

Likud MK David Bitan, a former coalition whip removed from the post because of a graft probe, continued the party’s attacks on Smotrich Tuesday, telling Channel 12 that “Smotrich cannot be the person speaking about leadership since his only leadership is of hilltop youth,” referring to young, extremist settlers accused of violence against Palestinians.

“When I was coalition whip Smotrich was the most problematic,” Bitan added. “He jumped up to a ministerial position and membership of the cabinet too fast, he hasn’t gained enough experience.”

Yamina — whose campaign was launched with new branding in an event Monday evening — is made up of Shaked’s New Right, Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s Jewish Home, and Smotrich’s National Union factions.

Elections are scheduled for September 17.

Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.

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