Smotrich calling Netanyahu ‘liar’ is the chance for Likud to lose seats - analysis

No, Smotrich’s comments are not likely to have an impact on which bloc forms the government. Where they could have a real impact is if neither bloc proves able to do that yet again.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Bezalel Smotrich (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Bezalel Smotrich
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

A tape emerged on Sunday on Channel 11 of Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich channeling his inner Nicolas Sarkozy and calling Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu a “lying son of a liar.”

Why Sarkozy?

Because the former French president, when he was still in office in November 2011, was caught in a hot-mic moment telling then US president Barack Obama that Netanyahu “is a liar” whom he “cannot bear.”

“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama replied.

“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Barack Obama to Nicolas Sarkozy on dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu

In other words, this wasn’t the first time that Netanyahu has been blasted for being a liar in private conversations by high-profile people he has had to work with. The former prime minister might take solace in thinking that just as the Sarkozy comment did not cause him any long-term domestic political harm, neither will Smotrich’s taped remark.

But erstwhile Netanyahu ally Avigdor Liberman – the current finance minister who since he broke with Netanyahu in 2019 has spent much of the last three years slamming Netanyahu as a liar and worse – implied on Monday that the former prime minister should not be smug in thinking that Smotrich’s words won’t have an effect.

 RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich attends a conference in Tel Aviv last week. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich attends a conference in Tel Aviv last week. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

“The Smotrich tape is a game-changer. This is certification that Netanyahu is a liar for whom nothing interests him but his trial.”

Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman

“The Smotrich tape is a game-changer,” Liberman said in a KAN Reshet Bet interview. “This is certification that Netanyahu is a liar for whom nothing interests him but his trial.”

If Liberman meant that this recording would shift the balance before the elections and have an influence on which bloc – the pro- or anti-Bibi bloc – will prove victorious, he is likely mistaken. But if he meant that this might impact what happens inside the Likud after the election, then he might have a point.

How can Smotrich's comments impact Likud?

Smotrich’s comment was made in the context of the long-simmering debate about whether Netanyahu, during the coalition negotiations following the last election, was willing to form a coalition with the help of Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am (United Arab List) Party. Both Abbas’s and Netanyahu’s detractors said that this was something the former prime minister was more than willing to do, while Netanyahu and his supporters adamantly denied it.

The reason this little piece of political history is relevant now is because Netanyahu’s relentless crusade against the Bennett government, and now his campaign against Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, is that just as they were willing to work and have their government propped up by an Islamist party in the past, something he said the Likud would never do, they will be willing to do the same thing this time around as well. Even more damning, Netanyahu claims, is that they would be willing to rely on the votes of what remains of the anti-Zionist Joint List of Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi.

According to the Smotrich tape, however, Netanyahu’s claim that he was not willing to sit with Abbas was a lie: “He didn’t want to go with Ra’am? Oh boy, did he want to!”

Smotrich went on to say that he prevented this from happening. “I was the only one to stand my ground,” he was heard saying. During the conversation, he also said that Netanyahu was “trouble,” but that he wouldn’t be around indefinitely. “Physics and biology will take their course. He will not be here forever. At some point, he’ll be found guilty in court or something like that. We need a little patience in life.”

As derogatory as those comments are, they are not likely to move voters from the pro-Netanyahu to the anti-Netanyahu camp. It is not as if voters in the right-wing bloc, hearing Smotrich say that Netanyahu lied and wanted to form a coalition with Ra’am, will suddenly slap palm to forehead and say, “Whoops, I better now go vote for Gantz or Lapid.”

“Whoops, I better now go vote for Gantz or Lapid.”

What Israeli right-wing bloc voters will not be saying

Rather, if there is any movement as a result of the tape, it will likely be from the Likud – if voters are concerned that the party might team up with Ra’am to form a coalition – to Smotrich’s party, which they know will not. For this reason, some observers are pointing a finger at the Religious Zionist Party itself as the source of the tape.

This reflects a greater phenomenon that is taking place in the campaign as it comes down to the wire: All the real action is taking place inside the respective blocs, not between them. Gantz and Lapid know that their chances of pulling votes away from the Netanyahu bloc are slim, just as Netanyahu knows that he won’t be drawing votes from the National Unity or Yesh Atid parties.

What Netanyahu wants to do now is shrink the power of the Religious Zionist Party inside his bloc, because the larger that party is, the more leverage it will have over him. And what the Religious Zionist Party is trying to do is suck votes away from Likud for the same reason, because the bigger they are, the more leverage they will have.

The same dynamic is at work on the other end of the political spectrum. Lapid and Gantz are trying to figure out ways to take votes from each other, as well as from Labor and Meretz. Gantz is doing this so that he can come in as the third-biggest party and stake a claim to the premiership, and Lapid is trying to prevent Gantz from doing just that.

Where Smotrich’s comments may make a difference, therefore, is not before the election but the day after – especially if Netanyahu is unable to form a 61-seat coalition.

If Netanyahu fails to cobble together a government for the fifth time in 44 months, there is a good chance that this time, more voices will emerge inside the Likud saying that enough is enough and that the party needs a new leader who will be able to work with the centrist parties and can form a stable government.

In that scenario, Smotrich’s tape accusing Netanyahu of lying and having been willing to work with Abbas could be used by disgruntled Likud MKs against the former prime minister. On the one hand, they can use this to portray Netanyahu as completely untrustworthy, and on the other, to show that if even Netanyahu was willing to work with Ra’am to form a stable government, the Likud should be able to join together with parties in the Center-Left bloc for the same purpose.

No, Smotrich’s comments are not likely to have an impact on which bloc forms the government. Where they could have a real impact is if neither bloc proves able to do that yet again.