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Coalition increasingly split on left-right lines as budget deadline looms

Meretz decries ‘unilateral steps’ in West Bank, says they undermine government; Labor says it was left out of key decisions

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) and other ministers attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 24, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) and other ministers attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on October 24, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

With less than three weeks remaining until the government must pass a national budget, a series of contentious issues and ministerial decisions are pitting cabinet members from the left and right of the coalition against each other, threatening a crisis that could pull it apart.

The right-center-left government formed in June was nicknamed the “change government” because it ousted the Likud party’s Benjamin Netanyahu from power, pledging to change the political discourse and only advance moves agreed upon by all of the disparate coalition parties.

The narrow governing coalition must pass a 2021 budget by November 14, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other ministers have warned against rocking the boat in the run-up to that vote. If the much-delayed budget — it would be the first state budget to be approved in over three years — does not pass by the deadline, the coalition will automatically dissolve, triggering new elections.

But rifts centering around a number of measures taken by the new government regarding the conflict with the Palestinians have coalition parties on the left claiming they have been frozen out and warning of a looming confrontation.

In a clear sign of the increasingly public tensions, the management of the left-wing Meretz coalition party published a statement Sunday night voicing “concern about a series of unilateral steps taken by cabinet ministers regarding policies toward the Palestinians in the territories and settlement expansion.”

The statement said that “these steps endanger the future of the State of Israel and its diplomatic horizon, and they undermine the basis on which the change government was established.”

The statement referred to Friday’s blacklisting of Palestinian rights groups as terror organizations, as well as Sunday’s announcement of 1,300 new homes in West Bank settlements.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Friday afternoon, Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party announced that the six Palestinian civil society groups — including highly prominent ones with significant backing and oversight from the European Union and other international bodies — were being designated as terror organizations, asserting that they worked on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group.

The list consisted of: Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees; ADDAMEER — Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association; Bisan Center for Research and Development; al-Haq Organization; Defense for Children International — Palestine (DCI-P); and the Union Of Agricultural Work Committees.

The Defense Ministry provided no concrete evidence to demonstrate a direct connection between those organizations and the PFLP in its announcement on Friday.

Both Israeli military and civilian law ban supporting or joining a terror group, and violators can face years in prison. Israeli authorities can also seize assets belonging to terror organizations and prohibit funding their activities. Donors may also be subject to significant jail time.

Responding to the move, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who leads Meretz, demanded clear evidence that the organizations were involved in terrorism.

“It is a very problematic matter,” he told Channel 13 news in a Saturday night interview. “This complicates things for Israel internationally and I think we agreed in the coalition agreement to disagree on the matter of the territories, but that the situation there can’t be made worse.”

Meretz party chair Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz leads a Meretz faction meeting at the Knesset on July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev of the center-left Labor party said that the move was not discussed in the high-level security cabinet, of which he is a member.

“I am a member of the security cabinet and it did not come up there. This raises questions,” Barlev told the Kan public broadcaster.

In a further strain on the coalition, Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the right-wing New Hope party announced Sunday night the advancement of the construction of more than 1,300 homes in West Bank settlements, the first declaration of its kind since US President Joe Biden took office in January.

The development came after Hebrew media reported last week that over 3,000 settlement homes will be advanced this week alongside some 1,300 Palestinian homes in the West Bank’s Area C.

In response to Elkin’s announcement on Sunday, Meretz MK Mossi Raz tweeted his displeasure with the Bennett-led government and its treatment of the left-wing party.

“The Yamina government is disregarding Meretz,” wrote Raz. “It’s heading 10 degrees more to the right than the last government. Building in settlements outside of Israel harms Israel.”

New Hope Minister Ze’ev Elkin in the Knesset on June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In response, Elkin told Channel 13 news that Meretz should not expect him to abandon his principles.

“I am not imposing on Meretz people whether they go to meet [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] or not; I would behave differently. So they will of course not impose [their opinion] on me and force me to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria,” Elkin said, using the biblical name of the West Bank.

Several Meretz members met with Abbas in Ramallah earlier this month, drawing the ire of right-wing coalition members.

According to the Haaretz daily, during a meeting of the coalition heads Sunday, Labor leader Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Meretz’s Horowitz demanded that Bennett, who hails from the right-wing Yamina party, freeze both Gantz’s and Elkin’s decisions, as well as a deal cut between settler residents of the illegal Evyatar outpost and Israeli authorities.

In July, Israeli authorities agreed with the Evyatar residents that in exchange for them leaving the outpost, the buildings they put up will remain in place and the Israel Defense Forces will turn the area into a makeshift base. Searching for a long-term solution, the Defense Ministry is currently surveying the land to determine its status and see if it can be legally transformed into a formal settlement.

Michaeli told Bennett during Sunday’s meeting that the establishment of a new settlement on the land would constitute “a red line” for the Labor party.

Ynet reported Sunday that Meretz has conveyed similar messages to Bennett over the recent decisions regarding the Palestinians and the West Bank, which it said it saw as a “real threat” to the continued cooperation in the coalition.

“Meretz is raising a flag. We will not less this pass quietly,” s source in the party told the news site.

Israeli soldiers observe the Palestinian village of Beita with binoculars as settlers evacuate the newly-established wildcat outpost of Evyatar in the West Bank, on July 2, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster Monday morning, Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej of Meretz said that the Evyatar outpost would not be legalized and that Meretz would not back down on its left-wing agenda.

“Regarding the Evyatar outpost — it will not be built and we have clarified that,” Frej said. “Meretz cannot come to terms with a government that builds in the territories and endangers the two-state solution.”

Bennett has in recent weeks repeatedly called on his coalition partners to keep the peace until the budget is passed.

“There is no point in starting to rock the boat,” Bennett told ministers at their cabinet meeting last week. “Even when someone has a really burning urge to respond, certain that they are right – let us keep the bigger goal in mind.”

“We must now focus on passing the budget,” he implored. “This is the main task for the coming weeks. To focus all efforts, to maintain coalition stability, so that we can advance the common goals for which we have come together. Let us focus, especially in the coming weeks, on what we have in common and not on disagreements.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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