Far-right also fighting coalition over military gear for PA

Ben Gvir suspends support for coalition amid dispute over Palestinian prisoners

Far-right minister tells Netanyahu his party will boycott government until demands are met, though move will have little impact until Knesset returns for winter session

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Israel Police event in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at an Israel Police event in Jerusalem on August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Wednesday said his far-right Otzma Yehudit party will not vote with the coalition until the government implements his demand to limit visitation rights for Palestinian security prisoners.

Ben Gvir informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Otzma Yehudit boycott a day after the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Tuesday that no imminent changes would be made to the rights and benefits of Palestinian prisoners, going against Ben Gvir, who had claimed that his authority superseded that of the prime minister on the issue.

The Otzma Yehudit boycott added to tensions within the coalition over the judicial overhaul, a shipment of armored vehicles to the Palestinian Authority, and other issues.

Ben Gvir’s refusal to cooperate with the coalition will have little immediate impact because the Knesset is currently in recess, however. The winter session will begin after the High Holidays on October 15.

Otzma Yehudit has repeatedly boycotted the government, or threatened to do so, to push its hardline demands since the coalition took power late last year.

Ben Gvir informed Netanyahu of his noncompliance after leading a toast at a pre-Rosh Hashanah event for coalition lawmakers in Jerusalem, Hebrew media reported.

At a faction meeting earlier on Wednesday, Ben Gvir said his party “made an uncompromising demand to significantly reform the conditions of terrorists in prison.”

“This is in accordance with the role and authority of the national security minister. It is a fundamental demand by Otzma Yehudit,” said Ben Gvir, who has repeatedly railed against the conditions of Palestinian security prisoners and taken steps to make their conditions more uncomfortable.

Ben Gvir has been trying to convince Netanyahu for the past few weeks to allow him to reduce the frequency of prisoners’ family visitation rights from once a month to once every two months.

Netanyahu is said to adamantly oppose the move, due to concerns voiced by security chiefs that such restrictions could lead to an escalation in Palestinian violence ahead of the holiday period. Prisoners have already threatened a hunger strike if such a decision is implemented.

A Tuesday statement from the Prime Minister’s Office noted that following a “situation assessment” by the security cabinet, it had been decided to hold a further discussion in October on prisoners held for security offenses, and that “there will be no changes until this discussion is held.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Far-right lawmakers are also at odds with the government over military equipment that was reportedly transferred from the US to the Palestinian Authority via Jordan, with Israel’s consent. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Netanyahu denied the reported weapons transfer, but Netanyahu confirmed that Israel approved a shipment of several armored vehicles. Israel and the Palestinian Authority cooperate on security in the West Bank.

Ben Gvir clashed with Gallant, a moderate from Netanyahu’s Likud party, over the transfer, Channel 13 reported on Wednesday.

Gallant, who supported the move, told Ben Gvir, “You speak from ignorance,” the report said.

“Armored vehicles are not offensive. They’re not lethal. They are not receiving, and will not receive, anything lethal,” Gallant said.

National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi also backed the transfer, saying, “How do you expect the Palestinian Authority to combat terrorism if they don’t receive any equipment?”

Following the dispute, senior government officials told Channel 13, “Extremist figures do not understand that dialogue with the PA is in Israel’s security interest.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends the first meeting of the committee for decentralization and increasing competition in the food and toiletry markets, September 3, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also derided Netanyahu for the shipment to the PA. He and Ben Gvir claimed that the move was made without their knowledge and accused Netanyahu of plotting to lay the foundations for an alternative government with the opposition’s National Unity party leader Benny Gantz.

Citing informed Palestinian sources, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian daily Al Quds said Monday that the shipment was approved by Israel and facilitated by Jordan and will be used by several branches of the PA security forces in regaining control over West Bank areas that have become hotbeds of terror activity.

The report was picked up Wednesday by Army Radio, sparking a furious response from Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

A statement from Smotrich’s office said that the finance minister “was unaware of such a move and was burning with anger.”

Ben Gvir was more direct.

“Mr. Prime Minister, if you don’t state in your own voice that the reports about the transfer of arms to the terrorists of the Palestinian Authority are false, there will be consequences,” he said.

Netanyahu said the government had merely complied with a decision taken in January 2022 by the previous government, when Gantz was defense minister, to allow several armored vehicles to be sent to the PA to replace older ones.

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