Ultra-Orthodox parties fear Netanyahu’s chances, may turn on him — report

Shas, UTJ said concerned premier’s opponents will form government without them if he fails, upend religious status quo; TV: Likud offered Yamina the defense and foreign ministries

United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni gives a press statement after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni gives a press statement after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s longtime ultra-Orthodox allies increasingly believe he will fail to put together a majority coalition following last month’s elections, and fear a government that excludes them may be later established, according to a Thursday report.

The United Torah Judaism and Shas parties are concerned that a potential coalition of the premier’s opponents will upend the status quo on religious issues, as began to happen under a government led by Netanyahu from 2013-2015, when the Haredi parties were last in the opposition, the Ynet news site reported.

The two parties are weighing whether to prevent such a situation by turning on Netanyahu, but not against the so-called right-wing bloc, the report said.

The top priorities of the parties are legislation on conscription of seminary students, rules on religious conversions, the housing shortage for their communities and other welfare issues.

UTJ MK Yaakov Asher hinted Thursday that the party may work to establish a government led by another member of Netanyahu’s Likud faction if the premier fails to cobble together a coalition.

In a panel discussion held by the Kol Hai radio station, Asher said, “We’re not betting on leaders of other parties, but we do not intend to wait until the last moment of the mandate to let Bennett or someone else surprise us.”

Asher indicated that if he and his compatriots do not see progress in Netanyahu’s efforts, “We’ll sit together and decide what to do.”

Another source in UTJ told Ynet that toward the end of the current 28-day period Netanyahu has to form a government, the ultra-Orthodox parties will demand clarification from the Likud leader, and “if we don’t have the impression that he has a chance to form a government, we might put a stop to it.”

President Reuven Rivlin awarded Netanyahu the first chance to try to form a government after Likud won the most seats in the March 23 election and Netanyahu was recommended by 52 MKs, compared to 45 who backed opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid). Netanyahu has 19 days left in his attempt. After that, Rivlin may grant him an extension, or give the mandate to form a government to another lawmaker, or send the issue back to the Knesset, which would have 21 days to give a majority to a potential PM or Israel would go to its firth rapid-fire election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri during a meeting in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas and UTJ were steadfast allies of Netanyahu through four election cycles in the past two years, but cracks have appeared in their alliance around last month’s vote, especially from UTJ.

Shas, which represents Mizrahi and Sephardi religious Jews, won nine seats in the election, while the Ashkenazi UTJ won seven.

Likud garnered 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, far more than any other party, but Netanyahu’s bloc numbers 52 seats, short of a majority, even if it secures the seven seats of Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina. The bloc of anti-Netanyahu parties also lacks a majority.

Days ahead of the election, UTJ leader Moshe Gafni said the party will “weigh its options” if Netanyahu failed to win a majority, and brushed aside a loyalty pledge his party signed to Netanyahu. The month before, he did not rule out a coalition with Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, long a foe of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid speaks at party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2021, after the release of exit polls for the Knesset elections. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Shortly after the vote, both Shas and UTJ were said to be angry with Netanyahu for bolstering the far-right Religious Zionism faction during the campaign, believing the effort cost them Knesset seats.

Last week, the parties reportedly told Netanyahu they will not follow him to another round of voting, despite public declarations of support for the prime minister.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported Thursday that talks between Likud and Yamina were progressing. Netanyahu needs Yamina to form a government, and also needs to convince Religious Zionism to drop its opposition to the Islamist Ra’am party backing the government from the outside.

The report said Netanyahu has offered Bennett the Defense Ministry, and Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked the Foreign Ministry in a prospective government, although Yamina had wanted the Finance Ministry for Shaked.

Yamina was also expected to receive a smaller portfolio, likely the Culture and Sport Ministry, since the Justice Ministry will likely stay with Likud, the report said. Netanyahu has warred with the Justice Ministry amid his ongoing trial for corruption charges.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem on April 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is only expected to offer Bennett the premiership in a rotational agreement if the Yamina leader commits immediately to not try to form a coalition with the anti-Netanyahu bloc, the report said.

Both parties denied the report.

Bennett’s talks with Lapid have stalled, and Netanyahu in the coming days is likely to continue to pressure Religious Zionism to drop its opposition to Ra’am, and may try to convince Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party to support his coalition from the outside, the report said. New Hope ran on a platform of replacing Netanyahu as premier and has steadfastly maintained that position since the election.

New Hope lawmakers have said Netanyahu has attempted to entice them to defect from the party with sought-after portfolios to reach a majority, but they refused.

New Hope has not ruled out Likud, only Netanyahu, giving rise to scenarios in which Netanyahu relinquishes power and becomes either president or alternate prime minister, enabling Sa’ar’s party to join and form a right-wing majority coalition headed by another Likud member.

New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar at party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Monday, Yamina party leader Bennett said his party supports the formation of a right-wing government with Likud, but stressed that averting a fifth round of elections in two years was his overarching goal, implying he could yet join Sa’ar and the center-left should Netanyahu fail to cobble together a coalition.

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