Annexation and immunity: Likud, Union of Right-Wing Parties open coalition talks

Far-right alliance demanding Netanyahu commit to annexing all settlements while pitching legislation that would see him evade prosecution for corruption

Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)
Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)

Representatives of the ruling Likud party met on Friday with members of the Union of Right-Wing Parties for coalition talks during which the far-right faction laid out conditions for joining a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The two parties were expected to meet again early next week.

The URWP is demanding that Netanyahu commit to annexing all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as well as support legislation that would grant the premier de-facto immunity from prosecution, a spokesman for a senior lawmaker in the far-right faction told The Times of Israel this week.

Ahead of the talks with Likud, the URWP pressed for a long list of additional demands, ranging from high-level ministerial portfolios to legislation that would blunt the power of the Supreme Court to act as a check on the Knesset.

Those stipulations for entering the government — as leaked over the weeks since the April 9 elections — include that faction leader, Rafi Peretz, be named education minister and the slate’s No. 2, Bezalel Smotrich, be made justice minister.

Rafi Peretz, head of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The URWP amalgam is made up of the national religious Jewish Home and National Union parties along with Otzma Yehudit, a radical group led by self-proclaimed disciples of the late American rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned in Israel in the 1980s for racism.

In a move seen as a bone to Netanyahu, Smotrich has said he will put forth during coalition negotiations a bill he proposed during the previous Knesset that would ensure automatic immunity to any member of parliament and would likely shield Netanyahu from prosecution in the three corruption cases against him.

If it is passed, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — after a hearing with the prime minister in the coming months — decides to indict him, the premier would likely be spared a Knesset vote on a motion to strip him of his parliamentary immunity.

In the weeks leading up to the April 9 election, Netanyahu repeatedly said he would not push such legislation himself, but was coy when asked about others doing so.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises in a Channel 12 TV interview to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, April 6, 2019. (Channel 12 news screenshot)

In an implicit quid-pro-quo, URWP is insisting that Netanyahu make good on his campaign pledge to annex all of the settlements, which are home to some 400,000 Israeli Jews. Observers say such a move, which would come as the Trump administration prepares to roll out its long awaiting peace plan, would put a nail in the coffin of hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The URWP is also demanding the passage of a High Court override bill that would allow the Knesset, with a majority vote, to re-enact legislation struck down as unconstitutional by the top legal body. The legislation, or a version of it, is supported by several of the right-wing factions expected to make up Netanyahu’s coalition, which have seen some of their legislative efforts struck down by the Supreme Court.

Other demands, including a third, more minor ministerial portfolio — such as the Jerusalem or Diaspora Affairs ministries — are widely understood to be negotiating tactics aimed at putting as much pressure as possible on Netanyahu, who ostensibly will not agree to every one of the far-right slate’s stipulations.

Also on the URWP wish list a demand that the government sponsor an expanded version of the so-called “Norwegian law” that would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next in line on their party’s slate to enter parliament.

The current law only allows a party to activate the Norwegian law for one of its appointed ministers, but URWP wants to ensure that its slate’s lone Otzma Yehudit representative, Itamar Ben Gvir, gets into the Knesset. At number seven on the list, the activist attorney is currently two spots shy from doing so. A successful passage of such a law would lead to both Peretz and Smotrich resigning from the Knesset to focus solely on the work of their respective ministries, in turn allowing Ben Gvir and settler activist Orit Strock into parliament.

Union of Right Wing Parties candidates (from L-R) Rafi Peretz, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich pose for a photo on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy)

The party is also asking for the establishment of a ministerial committee, headed by a URWP member, that will be responsible for legalizing settlement outposts and wildcat homes throughout the West Bank, in addition to taking responsibility over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division. The faction is also seeking the abolition of the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry body responsible for running much of the government bureaucracy for Israeli settlers. Instead, such approvals would be granted by the relevant government offices.

Also on the URWP’s list of demands is the cancellation of the Disengagement Law, a move that would allow Israelis to return to the four northern West Bank settlements that were evacuated in 2005 at the same time as the unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The right-wing slate is also eyeing more say among Knesset members over the appointment of judges, including through a parliamentary hearing.

It will also seek to bar the attorney general from taking a position against that of the cabinet, and prevent the state comptroller from reporting on the activities of government offices in real-time. Ombudsman Yosef Shapira has published reports over the past several years that have been heavily critical of several ministries’ funneling of funds toward illegal West Bank outposts.

Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah claimed Monday that the list appeared to have been written by Netanyahu himself.

“The vision of the nightmare government is coming true,” he said in a statement. “Netanyahu will give — to Smotrich — and take — immunity for himself.”

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