Ben Gvir says no longer bound by coalition discipline, in spat with Haredi factions

Far-right minister’s party accuses ultra-Orthodox parties of tanking deal granting him more power, after reportedly opposing Haredi legislation regarding so-called ‘kosher phones’

File: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 15, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
File: National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 15, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party said on Monday that it was no longer bound by coalition discipline, following opposition by ultra-Orthodox coalition parties to an expansion of his authority.

“Minister Ben Gvir and the members of the Otzma Yehudit faction informed the chairman of the coalition that, as of today, the Otzma Yehudit faction is not bound by the coalition’s discipline, and until the authority is transferred, it will vote as it sees fit,” the party said in a statement.

Ben Gvir and his party made their announcement amid media reports that Shas and United Torah Judaism made a “deal” with Arab lawmakers to torpedo the transfer of the Real Estate Enforcement Division to the National Security Ministry in exchange for help passing legislation to maintain yeshiva students’ draft deferments. Hadash party chief Ayman Odeh denied the report.

“Over the last few hours, the representatives of the ultra-Orthodox factions informed Minister Ben Gvir that they will not allow the transfer of the Real Estate Enforcement Division to the National Security Ministry,” the statement continued.

The Knesset was set to vote to approve the transfer during a plenum session Monday afternoon, but was taken off the agenda after the two sides failed to come to an agreement in last minute negotiations held while Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli spoke at length to buy time.

Addressing the plenum, Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi said that if the fate of any enlistment legislation rests on his party, his MKs will vote against it “in order to bring it down.”

“If there is a Jewish war between the kosher telephones of the ultra-Orthodox and the transfer of authority of Ben Gvir… don’t involve the Arab parties,” he said, calling those linking his party to issue “a group of liars.”

Ben Gvir’s threat was just one of many made during his tenure as the national security minister, the most recent happening in January surrounding open-fire rules for IDF soldiers fighting in Gaza. Ben Gvir also threatened to bolt the coalition in December over the government’s handling of the war against Hamas at the time, asserting that he would leave if the military offense did not “continue at full strength.”

An Israeli tank rolling along the fence as damaged buildings are seen in the Gaza Strip from southern Israel, along the border, on January 19, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Haredi media reported that ultra-Orthodox MKs’ opposition to giving Ben Gvir more authority stemmed from his opposition to legislation relating to so-called “kosher phones” that they support.

Kosher phones — used by many in the ultra-Orthodox community who shun unfiltered access to the internet — are stripped of features such as web browsers and messaging apps, come with cheaper plans, as they are only used six days of the week, and have phone numbers with distinct digits that differentiate them from regular smartphone users.

Last Monday, the government announced that Ben Gvir would assume responsibility over a unit that enforces building regulations which had until now been under the auspices of the Finance Ministry.

The National Unit for enforcing planning and construction laws demolishes illegal buildings in Qalansawe, January 10, 2017 (National Unit for enforcing planning and construction laws/ File)

The move was part of the coalition agreement signed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party when the government took power in late 2022.

“In recent years, it has become better understood that, in order to curb serious violence in Israel, and especially that which is prevalent in Arab society, a combined and focused effort is required by all relevant enforcement authorities against criminals,” the introduction stated.

Rights groups promptly protested the wording of the agreement citing that it singled out “criminality” in Israel’s Arab society. The “state’s use of… house demolitions not to ensure the rule of law, but as part of its oppression of the Arab population,” one researcher said commenting on the unit’s transfer to the Calcalist newspaper.

Arab municipalities and neighborhoods have a higher prevalence of unauthorized construction, according to a 2022 study by the Sikkuy-Aufoq nonprofit, whose mission statement is to promote equality between Arabs and Jewish citizens of Israel. Advocates wanting to reform enforcement of illegal construction claim that many Arab violators build without permits because of a combination of institutional racism and inefficient bureaucracy that makes it harder for Arabs to obtain permits, though other observers of the issue dispute these claims.

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