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‘Back to square one’: Likud, Religious Zionism trade blame as coalition talks derail

Smotrich’s party says Netanyahu backed out of deal on division of portfolios; Likud denies this, says PM-designate offered Smotrich to serve as treasury chief for half a term

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Religious Zionism party declared that coalition negotiations were “back at square one” on Tuesday night, claiming that Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had walked back on previously reached agreements regarding the cabinet posts the far-right party was supposed to receive.

Likud denied the accusations, saying its offer for Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich to serve as finance minister for half a term remained on the table, as had been the case a day earlier. However, the Walla news site said Netanyahu had originally offered Smotrich a full term as head of the treasury.

Much of the back-and-forth that plays out in the media during coalition negotiations is pre-planned, as parties jockey to receive the best positioning possible in the next government. Few expect Netanyahu not to be able to ultimately cobble together a cabinet and he is known to allow such negotiations to go down to the wire.

However, the bitterness building up between the parties that are largely aligned ideologically appeared to be a bad sign for how they might work together as a coalition in the coming months and years.

In its statement, Religious Zionism said that the parties had initially reached agreements regarding the divvying of cabinet posts as well as issues related to West Bank settlements. However, it said, when Smotrich met with Netanyahu on Tuesday night, the former realized that the latter had walked back his willingness to go along with what they had previously agreed,

The dispute boils down to which portfolios Religious Zionism will receive in addition to the Treasury, a source familiar with the talks told Walla. Smotrich is demanding either the Education or Immigration Ministries in addition to transferring departments that have to do with West Bank settlements from the Defense Ministry to a ministerial office under Religious Zionism’s control.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Likud, for its part, insisted that it had not pulled out of any agreements and that its offer to Smotrich — for him to serve half a term as finance minister, in addition to his party receiving a cabinet post in charge of settlements along with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry — was more than fair.

“Likud, however, did not agree to comply with new demands set by Smotrich after our offer was accepted, including the removal of a long list of departments from various ministries in order to transfer them to the Finance Ministry,” Netanyahu’s party said in a statement.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir dug his heels in, reaffirming his position that his extremist faction would not join the emerging government without receiving control over the Ministry for the Development of the Periphery, the Negev and the Galilee.

“We must invest [in the periphery] and without our ability to make good on our promises, we simply will not enter the government,” Ben Gvir said on the Knesset floor.

Along with increasing public security, advancing communities beyond Israel’s urban centers was a core Otzma Yehudit campaign promise. With Netanyahu’s bloc consisting of 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Ben Gvir’s six-seat party is crucial to give the potential coalition a parliamentary majority.

Ben Gvir and Netanyahu were slated to meet late Tuesday to smooth out wrinkles that have frustrated talks, according to Hebrew media reports. Netanyahu was reportedly meeting with Ben Gvir’s political partner, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich Tuesday evening.

Talks between Ben Gvir and Netanyahu’s Likud hit a stumbling block on Monday when Likud withdrew its offer to give Otzma Yehudit the ministry in charge of the periphery and the development areas of the Galilee and Negev.

Instead, the ministry was offered to the ultra-Orthodox Shas as part of a sweetener for the Haredi party to release the Finance Ministry to Smotrich — at least for half a term — with Ben Gvir’s party said set to receive the Agriculture Ministry instead.

Until that compromise was floated, Smotrich had been insisting on getting the Defense Ministry, which would have given him significant control over the West Bank and over the daily lives of Palestinians. Such an appointment was fiercely opposed by the United States and was criticized domestically as well, including by right-wing figures, who noted Smotrich’s hardline ideology and lack of security experience.

Instead, according to an unsourced report Monday by Channel 12 news, the defense portfolio will remain with Netanyahu’s Likud party and Smotrich will take over the Treasury, while the other main contender for that job — Shas leader Aryeh Deri — will get the Interior Ministry.

A Monday report by the Kan public broadcaster suggested that Deri would receive a “super ministry” that would effectively combine the Interior Ministry and Transportation Ministry into one office — to make up for losing out on the finance minister job.

Both Kan and Channel 12 reported that Deri’s ultra-Orthodox party would also receive the Negev and Galilee Ministry at Otzma Yehudit’s expense. Kan said Shas was also set to control the Health Ministry and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, while Channel 12 said instead that it would receive the Religious Services Ministry and a position in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, left, and Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich talk during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

On Tuesday, another unsourced Channel 12 report said Smotrich and Deri had reached a compromise deal that would see them take turns heading the Finance Ministry and the Interior Ministry.

However, that solution would likely see the incoming government flip-flop on economic policy, as Smotrich is a staunch free market advocate while Deri is an avid supporter of robust welfare services.

On top of that, the current legal status bars Deri from heading any ministry in the next government, since he was convicted of tax offices earlier this year and received a suspended sentence — which automatically bars him from being a minister for seven years as long as there is no judicial ruling saying his conviction doesn’t carry “moral turpitude.”

The government can ask the head of the Central Elections Committee, a Supreme Court justice, to rule on the matter, but some reports have indicated that Netanyahu and Deri plan to sidestep the problem by changing the law so that it no longer bars people who received suspended sentences from serving as ministers.

The compensation offer to Shas outraged fellow Haredi party United Torah Judaism, which was only slated to receive the Housing Ministry, the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and chairmanship of the Knesset’s Finance Committee. It is now reportedly demanding that it also be given control over the Social Equality Ministry.

The demands from Netanyahu’s coalition partners were also causing frustration within Likud where lawmakers were leaking to the press their frustration over being left with a limited number of cabinet posts, despite being the largest party in the Knesset.

The party is still likely to control the Defense, Foreign, Justice Economy, Education and possibly even the Transportation Ministries in the next government.

Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and a third far-right party, Noam, formally split this week into three separate factions, after joining forces for tactical reasons during the Knesset election.

Religious Zionism now has seven Knesset seats, Otzma Yehudit has six, and the ultraconservative, anti-LGBT Noam has one lawmaker, Avi Maoz.

Noam MK Avi Maoz at an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Maoz used his speech at the Knesset plenum to rail against an education reform announced this week by outgoing Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, putting together regulations aimed at protecting LGBT children and improving the support given to them and their families.

The rules — put together by the ministry’s psychological service, the national parents union, LGBT rights groups, academics and experts — order schools to hold a dialogue with students about their needs and preferences, including their preferred pronouns, as well as ensuring there is no discrimination.

Maoz lambasted the rules, which he said would insert “progressive lunacy” into schools.

Turning to Shasha-Biton, Maoz asked her: “How would you like me to refer to you? As a woman or a man? Did anyone ask the parents if they agree for their children to be driven crazy with talk about all these strange genders?”

On Monday, several unconfirmed reports said Maoz was demanding in coalition talks that government forms no longer use the formulation “Parent 1” and “Parent 2,” instead using “Father” and “Mother.”

The reports were met with rebuke from center-left members of the outgoing coalition. Labor MK Naama Lazimi called the demand “humiliating,” while Yorai Lahav-Hertzano of Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, one of three openly gay MKs in the newly sworn in Knesset, said, “We won’t allow anyone to pull us backward and harm the recognition of our families, of our rights.”

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