Yamina rules out joint Knesset run with ‘devious,’ image-focused Sa’ar

Right-wing party heads slam New Hope leader as part of ‘failed’ unity government; Bennett raps Netanyahu for legitimizing Ra’am party, alleging it’s ‘Hamas’s sister organization’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Then-MKs Gideon Sa'ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then-MKs Gideon Sa'ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The religious right-wing Yamina party won’t join forces with Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party for a joint Knesset run, said its leaders on Wednesday, slamming the fledgling party along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Bezalel Smotrich, who broke away earlier this week to field an independent run.

Yamina is looking to expand the party’s appeal beyond religious voters, as part of leader Naftali Bennett’s declared run for prime minister.

“The option of running with Sa’ar is nonexistent,” said Yamina’s No. 2 Ayelet Shaked during an Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) panel.

She cited two reasons: Opinion polls predicting better results if both parties run separately, and Sa’ar being part of the “failed” unity government with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party since last May.

The IDI panel discussed the perceived erosion of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which have been frequently altered in recent years to accommodate fleeting political needs, such as anchoring the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing coalition.

In the 63 years since the first Basic Law was passed, the Basic Laws have been amended more than 100 times. By comparison, the US Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1789.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Netanyahu and Gantz abused the Basic Laws. Gideon Sa’ar and his party were part of the failed government,” Shaked charged, listing several members of New Hope who had a central role in maintaining the government, such as Zvi Hauser, whose compromise delayed a key budget deadline by four months.

Bennett added another reason for rejecting a joint ticket with Sa’ar later Wednesday. Speaking with Channel 13 news, he said Sa’ar had committed himself to the anti-Netanyahu camp by vowing not to join a coalition headed by the incumbent premier.

“I say — that isn’t my focus,” said Bennett, who has repeatedly refused to say if he will join a Netanyahu government after being left out of the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition last spring. “What interests the voters are other things.

“Additionally, we are a party that has accomplishments, while they are a party born in the mind of an image consultant from Tel Aviv,” he said in a jab at Sa’ar. “While I crisscrossed the country over the past year, Sa’ar sat down with image consultants and prepared a party.”

He also asserted that Sa’ar and his party members Hauser and Ze’ev Elkin have shown themselves to be “devious politicians.”

“Is this what Israel needs? More political deviousness? We already have the king of political deviousness,” Bennett said during the interview, referring to Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Israeli Arab city of Nazareth on January 13, 2021 (Gil ELIYAHU / POOL / AFP)

Bennett slammed the premier over his Wednesday visit to the Arab city of Nazareth, where he called on the Arab community to support him, and over increasing cooperation between Netanyahu and the Islamist Ra’am party, headed by Joint List MK Mansour Abbas.

“How is Benjamin Netanyahu not ashamed to hug Mansour Abbas, a man who visited terrorists who murdered soldiers? It’s a disgrace,” Bennett said, dismissing Netanyahu’s Nazareth visit as “purely political” and “endlessly cynical.”

He alleged that Abbas, who chairs the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, represents a “sister organization” of terror group Hamas, which rules Gaza and openly seeks Israel’s destruction.

“How dare you legitimize a sister organization of Hamas?” Bennett addressed the premier, clarifying that “the treatment of Arab citizens needs to be completely equal.”

Bennett said his recent split with Smotrich, his longtime running mate, was Smotrich’s fault for becoming too extreme.

“He split,” Bennett said. “I wish him luck. This race of being even more extreme, divisive and provocative — I’m not into it. I’m attacked because I gave an interview to a program [later] broadcast on Shabbat. That’s what I’ve been doing for 10 years. I’m married to a woman who isn’t from a religious home and I’m not sectorial. We are one nation.”

Smotrich’s split from Bennett has been widely reported to be the result of intervention behind the scenes by Netanyahu himself. The Kan public broadcaster reported Thursday that Likud officials have promised not to try to win over religious Zionist voters if Bennett and Smotrich run separately. Similar promises in the past have not been upheld.

Naftali Bennett (L), Ayelet Shaked (R) and Bezalel Smotrich (C) of the Yamina party hold a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

New Hope responded by calling Bennett “reckless.”

“When he’s nervous, he shoots in all directions. Naftali Bennett doesn’t have an iota of the accomplishments and reforms Gideon Sa’ar has achieved for the Israeli public,” the party said.

Likud repeated its frequent claim that Bennett won’t say if he’ll serve in a Netanyahu government, thus “tying his fate” to Sa’ar, “who doesn’t have a government without [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid and the rest of the left.”

Smotrich claimed that “the cat is out of the bag” and that Bennett “admitted that he chucked away Smotrich and religious Zionism in order to look good to the secular public in the center and the left, a continuation of his decision to cast aside all the right-wing and religious Zionist ideas.”

A poll published by Radio 103FM on Monday gave Smotrich’s rebranded Religious Zionism party, running on its own, four seats. Yamina, without Smotrich, was predicted to be the second-largest party in the Knesset, gaining 17 seats in total.

New elections, the fourth since April 2019, were triggered last month, after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

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