Bennett rebuffs Likud minister’s call to pledge loyalty to Netanyahu

Transportation Minister Miri Regev sent Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett a letter Thursday for him to sign, pledging he will back Prime Minister Netanyahu to form a government after next week’s elections.

Bennett, a former member of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties, rejected the call, responding to Regev via text message.

“I was already hoping you would announce your resignation because of the mutations failure at Ben Gurion Airport,” Bennett texted Regev, according to screenshots.

The Yamina chief has been highly critical of Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but — unlike other rivals of the premier — has not ruled out joining a Likud-led government after the elections.

Last month, Netanyahu partly reestablished the bloc of right-wing, religious parties that successfully prevented the formation of more centrist and secular coalitions after previous elections.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties signed on to Netanyahu’s loyalty pledge, agreeing that they will not independently join a government led by any party other than Likud after the March 23 election.

The document was supposed to be signed by Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, but the leader of the far-right faction announced that he had refused to do so, saying such pacts had not proven effective in producing right-wing governments.

“Our only loyalty is to [our] path and values, and we will only be part of a government that expresses them,” Smotrich’s party said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his right-wing and religious allies, at the Knesset on November 4, 2019 (Courtesy)

Even without Bennett or Smotrich, the move could further complicate efforts by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar — the leaders of the likely second- and third-largest parties, respectively — to form a government.

If either performs well enough on election day and the right-wing bloc refuses to budge, the more centrist parties will be forced to look elsewhere for coalition partners, be it with Meretz, Labor or possibly the Joint List or Ra’am if the majority-Arab parties agree to offer support from the opposition. If not, and the right-wing, religious bloc doesn’t cobble together at least 61 seats, the country could well be headed for a fifth election in under three years.

A poll released by the Kan public broadcaster Thursday showed Netanyahu’s Likud party continuing to see a boost in support ahead of next week’s Knesset elections, but neither the premier nor his political rivals having a clear path to forming a government.

The poll, the network’s last before Tuesday’s election, said Likud would pick up 31 seats if the vote were held today, one more than the party received in the network’s poll earlier this week. Likud has 36 seats in the outgoing Knesset.

Likud’s gain appeared to come at the expense of the rival right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties, each of which received nine seats in the poll, the first time both have fallen to single digits.

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