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Yamina chair says party heading to opposition with ‘head held high’

Bennett sits down with replacement Gantz, wishes him luck as defense minister, dismisses Netanyahu’s call for additional parties to join coalition

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett (L) and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz meet in the Knesset on May 17, 2020. (Courtesy)
Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett (L) and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz meet in the Knesset on May 17, 2020. (Courtesy)

Outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett met with his replacement, Benny Gantz, on the sidelines of the government swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset on Sunday, during which the Yamina party chairman asserted that his national religious party would be heading to the opposition “with its head held high.”

Gantz, who was sworn in as alternate prime minister and future prime minister, in addition to defense minister, will officially take over at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters at a Monday ceremonial changing of the guard.

In a Sunday morning Facebook post summarizing his six months as defense minister, Bennett wrote that his task in the coming days would be to prepare the office for Gantz to take over and “to help him succeed in the post.”

Bennett also addressed Gantz directly during his swearing-in ceremony address. “Since I’m still defense minister, I can tell you, the enemies of Israel are always testing us, be it Hamas in Gaza or Iran in Syria.”

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)

“I hope and pray that we do not go back to the days of weakness and restraint,”  he said.

The Yamina chairman also used the opportunity to go after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he failed to reach a coalition agreement, forcing Bennett to go to the opposition for the first time in his political career.

“We are heading to the opposition with our heads held high,” Bennett insisted, dismissing Netanyahu’s apparent overtures during his own address, during which he said he hoped additional parties would join the unity government.

“Not going to happen,” Bennett responded.

“There is a reason why the prime minister is not sitting here right now,” he said, addressing Netanyahu’s empty chair in the plenum. “He wanted us to enter the coalition powerless, as ministers of affairs of nothing.”

“When we were in the government, we were the compass and the backbone. Without us, Netanyahu has no backbone,” he continued.

(From L-R) Yamina MKs Matan Kahana, Bezalel Smotrich, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Ofir Sofer, at a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking after Bennett, his fellow faction member Ayelet Shaked accused Netanyahu of compromising on his principles, claiming that he would not follow though on his promise to annex parts of the West Bank, would roll back her efforts to appoint conservative judges, would prevent the functioning of a free-market economy and would not act against illegal migrants or wildcat building in the Arab sector.

“Netanyahu has cast aside the ideological right, religious Zionism and all its values,” she lamented.

Later at the Knesset, Netanyahu told reporters that he had offered Yamina several posts to join the government, including the Education Ministry, the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, and the newly formed Settlements Ministry, but that the national religious party refused.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu said he was “not shutting the door” on Yamina.

Yamina issued a subsequent statement saying that “the door had never been open,” and asserting that Netanyahu had never made such an offer.

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