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Likud, Religious Zionism party teams to meet again Monday

After protracted impasse, progress said made in Netanyahu-Smotrich coalition talks

Likud says headway made ‘on all issues’ during 3-hour meeting with far-right leader, who has been accused of making excessive demands and has charged Likud trying to sideline party

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets a Religious Zionism coalition negotiation team headed by party leader Bezalel Smotrich, second from right, in Jerusalem on November 27, 2022. (Likud/courtesy)
Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets a Religious Zionism coalition negotiation team headed by party leader Bezalel Smotrich, second from right, in Jerusalem on November 27, 2022. (Likud/courtesy)

Progress was said to have been made during a lengthy meeting Sunday evening between prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu and far-right Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, after several weeks of coalition talks mired in mutual mud-slinging.

With negotiations between the allied parties stalled for many days, Netanyahu and Smotrich sat down for some three hours to straighten up significant differences regarding the positions and areas of responsibility Smotrich’s party will hold in the next government.

Netanyahu’s Likud said the meeting was held “in good spirits” and that “progress was made on all issues” that have been holding up the talks.

Likud also said the parties’ negotiation teams would meet again on Monday “with the goal of forming a right-wing government as soon as possible.”

There was no statement on the matter from Religious Zionism.

Coalition negotiations between Likud and allied right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties have dragged on since Netanyahu was given a 28-day mandate earlier this month to form a government, with the sides scrapping over appointments and legislative priorities. The mandate expires December 11, but can be extended for two weeks if President Isaac Herzog allows it.

The Likud leader had made progress in talks with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, but Religious Zionism proved a tougher nut to crack.

Talks with Smotrich have been mired in mutual accusations, with Religious Zionism claiming Netanyahu had gone back on promises, and Likud accusing the far-right party of making exaggerated demands in exchange for joining the coalition.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich exits a coalition negotiation meeting with Shas party head Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich had demanded to head either the Defense or the Finance Ministry, and Netanyahu appeared to have agreed in recent days to give him the latter for at least the first two years of the government.

Smotrich’s potential appointment as defense minister was fiercely opposed by the United States and was criticized domestically as well, over Smotrich’s hardline ideology and lack of security experience.

In addition to the first two years in the Finance Ministry, Smotrich has reportedly demanded the settlement affairs and immigrant absorption portfolios, as well as chair of four out of 11 coalition-controlled Knesset committees.

Citing sources involved in the talks, Haaretz reported that Smotrich also demanded control over the state’s Jewish conversion system.

Reports have also indicated that Likud has agreed to hand Smotrich control of the Civil Administration — the part of the Defense Ministry that manages Area C in the West Bank, where all Israeli settlers and several thousand Palestinians live under Israeli civilian and military control. The move has been decried by outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz and by the left-wing Peace Now group as “de-facto annexation.”

In a lengthy statement last week, Religious Zionism accused Likud of constantly leaking “lies” to the press as part of the coalition negotiations, alleging that Likud wanted to “trample and humiliate and sideline” the far-right party.

“Likud has unfortunately decided to hold negotiation meetings barely once every three days, and, in between, to leak spin to degrade us and to send armies of tweeters and ‘analysts’ to lie, curse, and vulgarly berate us,” it charged.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 10, 2020. (Courtesy)

“We suggest that Likud start getting serious about the negotiation,” the party said at the time, adding that it was insisting on gaining control over key powers that would enable it to make good on several radical election promises to implement policies that weren’t implemented under previous Netanyahu governments.

But Smotrich struck a different tone on Sunday afternoon, telling an educational conference that he was completely sure that “with God’s help, a truly right-wing government will be created in the coming days,” according to a statement from his spokesperson.

The reported progress comes after Netanyahu managed to nail down controversial agreements with Smotrich’s running mates, Itamar Ben Gvir of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party and Avi Maoz of the ultra-conservative, anti-LGBT Noam party. The three parties ran on a united slate — orchestrated by Netanyahu to maximize the power of his bloc of supporters — in the November 1 elections, and then split into three in a pre-planned move.

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