- ELEANOR REICH
Israel’s prime minister issued a call for national unity on Sunday, days after being defeated in the national election by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the backing of a far-right ultranationalist party.
At a memorial ceremony for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid warned of the deep divisions rife in the country after the bitter campaign, Israel’s fifth election since 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks to supporters after the results of the first exit poll from Israel’s parliamentary elections at his party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 2. Lapid issued a call for national unity on Sunday (November 6th), days after his national election defeat by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the backing of a far-right ultranationalist party. PHOTO: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File Photo.
He appeared to take aim at Religious Zionism, an extremist party whose leaders have repeatedly made anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ comments. Religious Zionism has become the third largest party in parliament and is expected to play a key role in Netanyahu’s government.
“There is no ‘us and them’, just us,” Lapid said in his first public comments since last week’s election. “An absolute majority of the citizens of this country believe in the rule of law, democratic values and mutual respect.”
“The absolute majority of Israelis want a Judaism that unites us, not a Judaism that is a political tool and certainly not a Judaism that is an endorsement of violence,” he added.
Netanyahu’s Likud party, along with Religious Zionism and a pair of ultra-Orthodox religious parties, won a 64-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament in last Tuesday’s elections. They should form a new government majority in the coming weeks.
Lapid’s incumbent coalition, a diverse set of parties that included the first-ever Arab party to be part of an Israeli government, won only 51 seats.
The election, like the previous four, focused on Netanyahu’s fitness to govern as he faces corruption charges.
Religious Zionism has vowed to push through new reforms that could weaken Israel’s judiciary, grant Netanyahu immunity and eventually wipe out the criminal charges against him. Critics say the program would be a blow to Israel’s democratic institutions.
Religious Zionism also promotes a hard line against Palestinians and Israel’s own Palestinian minority.
“The absolute majority of Israeli citizens don’t want to let hate rule their lives,” Lapid said during the ceremony at Israel’s National Cemetery. “We have to decide now, in this moment, where this country is going.”
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Netanyahu did not attend the ceremony. But speaking later in parliament, Netanyahu said that after the election, “it’s time to come out of the trenches and know how to work together.”
Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich has complained that his constituents have been unfairly “demonized” for supporting Rabin’s murder, an act he called “horrible”.
Smotrich’s running mate Itamar Ben-Gvir held up a hood ornament removed from Rabin’s car weeks before the assassination. “Just when we get to this emblem, we can get to Rabin,” said Ben-Gvir, who is now a candidate for a top cabinet post, at the time.
Rabin was killed on November 4, 1995 by a Jewish extremist who opposed his peace efforts with the Palestinians.