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Ben Gvir says Likud is ‘wavering’ on agreements; demands role on legislative panel

Far-right leader appears to confirm Likud backtrack on security-related policy points

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Otzma Yehudit head MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during his party's Knesset faction meeting. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit head MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during his party's Knesset faction meeting. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben Gvir said Monday he will continue to push for legislation granting immunity from prosecution to security forces personnel, as well as for easing their open-fire rules, amid apparent pushback from Likud.

Ben Gvir’s comments seemingly confirmed reports that Likud has tried to walk back some of its coalition promises to the far-right leader.

“In recent days, I hear wavering on agreements that were already signed and agreed upon,” Ben Gvir said at the outset of his party’s Monday faction meeting.

Ben Gvir and Likud negotiators reportedly had a blow-up on Thursday evening, after a generous deal was announced between Likud and Religious Zionism. Likud negotiators are said to have walked back some of the policy points agreed upon with Ben Gvir, including those relating to changing open-fire regulations and providing some immunity to security personnel for actions carried out as part of their duties.

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit became the first of five parties to sign a partial agreement with bloc leader Likud. Two parties are still holding out as Benjamin Netanyahu approaches his December 11 deadline to form a government (though he can and is expected to ask for a two-week extension).

With Netanyahu slated to sign coalition deals with three far-right and two ultra-Orthodox parties, right-wing stalwart Likud will find itself the left-most faction in Israel’s most hardline government yet.

Adding a fresh demand to his conditions for joining the government, Ben Gvir said Monday he wants an influential role in the powerful Ministerial Committee on Legislation, the government’s filter for coalition-backed bills. Netanyahu is said to want the top spot chairing the committee for himself, and Ben Gvir’s spokesman confirmed that the Otzma Yehudit leader will push to be his deputy.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich during an election campaign event of the Otzma Yehudit party in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Ben Gvir is positioned to receive an expanded form of the Public Security Ministry in the next government now retitled the National Security Ministry. He will receive additional authority including over the West Bank’s Border Police, which currently operates under the Israel Defense Forces. His expanded powers and appendage of several smaller enforcement units to his ministry have drawn criticism from Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who accuses Ben Gvir of building a private militia.

Ben Gvir’s running mate on a joint ticket, Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism, similarly secured sweeping authority to push his pro-settlement policy. Most critically, Smotrich’s party will place a minister within the Defense Ministry to oversee construction in the West Bank’s Area C, the 60 percent of the territory where Israel has civil and military responsibility and where all Jewish settlements are located.

That minister will be responsible for Jewish settlement and Palestinian construction, as well as the demolition of illegal construction. Smotrich has pushed to demolish unauthorized Palestinian homes, as well as to legalize wildcat Israeli outposts.

This minister will also have the authority to appoint the heads of the powerful Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration, responsible for the government’s civil policy within the West Bank.

In this context, Gantz said on Monday that the next defense minister — likely Likud MK Yoav Gallant — will have to actively guard against military powers being peeled off and handed out to coalition partners.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz gives a press conference, in Tel Aviv, November 29, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“I would like to say to my replacement: If you take the position as it is presented to you, your task will be to become the contractor for the dismantling of the security apparatus and the IDF.

“On your watch, [responsibility for] use of force will be taken away from the [military] chief of staff and handed to Ben Gvir. On your watch, the people’s army will disintegrate,” Gantz said at his National Unity party’s faction meeting.

“You will find yourself carrying this mark of Cain, and will be forced to bear responsibility for the security chaos. You will be a second-class defense minister,” he added.

Gantz charged that Smotrich will appoint the heads of West Bank civil authority apparatuses “according to his perception of the size of their kippa and the fervor of their faith — as I heard him say on the eve of the elections.”

In addition to its security policy, the incoming coalition has also drawn flak for its assignment of a key educational role to a far-right, anti-LGBT, misogynist politician.

Noam’s sole lawmaker, Avi Maoz, speaks at the outset of his Knesset faction meeting, December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Likud last week inked a deal with Avi Maoz’s one-man Noam party to put him in charge of a new department overseeing Israel’s Jewish national identity. This department is set to receive the Education Ministry’s office responsible for external educational programming for public schools.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Monday attacked his expected replacement Netanyahu for signing over the role to Maoz.

“You made a mistake, you know you made a mistake,” Lapid said, calling on Netanyahu to cancel the deal.

Referring to the dozens of local authorities that have said they would rebel against Maoz’s dictates, Lapid said “we’ll help them because they’re entirely right.”

Yesh Atid has opened a hotline to assist citizens concerned by the move.

Responding to the public and political criticism, Maoz said attacks against him are the political campaign of a bitter minority.

Speaking to reporters before his one-man faction meeting, Maoz said the criticism is “a wild political campaign by the left, headed by Yair Lapid and the media, against the elected prime minister and his attempt to form a government.”

“This is a campaign of the minority that lost the elections — against the majority of the people who spoke decisively at the ballot box,” he said.

“This campaign is nothing short of a rebellion and an attempt to prevent a prime minister from forming the only legitimate elected government after the elections,” Maoz continued, echoing Netanyahu.

Lapid said: “Netanyahu said this week that the fact that I am calling on the heads of the authorities not to cooperate with Maoz is sedition. There is no limit to this man’s shamelessness.

“If you think what I’ve been saying the last few days is rebellious, I have news for you, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I have just started,” Lapid added. “We are not your suckers. We are not here just to pay taxes and send our children to the army. Most people are against this conduct, including the Likudniks.”

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