'Would be clear to everyone who is responsible' for collapse

Coalition officials turn up heat on Ben Gvir, say he is to blame if government falls

As far-right minister enters 5th day of boycott in protest of Gaza policy, coalition whip says this is ‘sure path’ to early elections, Smotrich says it would be ‘prize for terror’

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

Coalition whip and Likud MK Ofir Katz, right, speaks to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Coalition whip and Likud MK Ofir Katz, right, speaks to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition figures on Monday intensified their attacks on far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has been boycotting Knesset and government activities, with the coalition whip saying his actions were leading toward the government’s collapse — and that Ben Gvir would be to blame in such a case. For his part, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the fall of the government would be a “prize for terrorism.”

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party has frozen participation in coalition work since last Wednesday, in response to what he has decried as the government’s “feeble” response to rocket barrages from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

“The way to bring about change is not by threatening to topple the government and boycotting government and coalition votes in the Knesset,” Smotrich said at the outset of his Religious Zionism party’s faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem. “The biggest prize for terrorism would be the collapse of the right-wing government and the left’s rise to power alongside terror supporters.”

Some of the parties in the current coalition — formed just four months ago — routinely refer to all majority-Arab parties as “terror supporters.”

Without making a call for specific action, Smotrich, who also serves as an independent second minister in the Defense Ministry, said that Israel “must not accept this reality” in which Palestinian terror organizations periodically launch rockets toward Israel’s southern communities.

Taking a different tack from the firebrand Ben Gvir, Smotrich stressed the need for coalition unity, following consistent opinion polls predicting that the current coalition bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would collapse in support if new elections are held.

Finance Minister and Religious Zionism party chief Bezalel Smotrich leads his party’s faction meeting at Jerusalem’s Knesset, May 8, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

“I say to all of my coalition colleagues: this is the moment for unity and for coalition discipline. All of us are obligated by government decisions and we won’t accept discipline violations whereby everyone does what they think is right,” Smotrich said, a day after Ben Gvir also skipped the weekly cabinet meeting.

“I once again call on my colleague minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the prime minister to sit down and talk and get government and coalition work back on track,” Smotrich added.

Ben Gvir did not immediately respond to Smotrich’s comments, nor did he immediately comment on even more blunt remarks Monday by the coalition whip, Likud MK Ofir Katz, who said that “right-wing policies are promoted through hard and joint work, not through walkouts.”

“You can say until tomorrow ‘don’t topple a right-wing government,’ but missing a cabinet meeting, a coalition leaders meeting, boycotting votes in the plenum, and canceling budget debates is precisely the sure path to toppling the right-wing government, and it would be clear to everyone who is responsible for that,” Katz said.

The far-right Otzma Yehudit leader has in recent weeks grown increasingly critical of the government he helped form in December. Ben Gvir swelled his party to six seats via a joint run with Smotrich and tough-on-crime promises, many of which even his coalition partners concede were overblown and impossible to deliver, as the crime wave has only worsened in recent months.

Israeli forces outside Jerusalem’s Old City during clashes with Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque on April 5, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Ben Gvir has received criticism for failing to control an epidemic of violent crime, particularly in the Arab community, and to bring order to poorly governed areas in the socio-economic periphery. He, in turn, has accused the government, police brass and legal advisers of shackling him, and Netanyahu for sidelining him in security discussions and decisions related to flareups with Palestinian terror groups.

However, his latest protest comes at a critical juncture, as the coalition faces a May 29 deadline to pass the state budget, which if not met would lead to automatic early elections. While the 64-seat coalition does not necessarily need Otzma Yehudit’s votes to pass the budget — as it only requires 50 MKs to advance via a plenum vote — the coalition cannot pass the critical law if the party were to vote against it, giving the 56-seat opposition up to a 62 vote majority.

Moreover, if the far-right party doesn’t support the budget, it would widely be seen as a departure from the coalition, leaving the government in a minority and without the option of passing any other legislation.

During his speech at the faction meeting, Smotrich also highlighted the need to advance the budget and said he fully stands behind coalition deals that will funnel billions of shekels to the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Smotrich’s comments came after media reports on Sunday revealed that some NIS 5 billion ($1.37 billion) of the budget will be funneled to meet Haredi demands, as part of a total of NIS 12.4 billion ($3.4 billion) in discretionary funds toward party priorities.

The sum had not been previously known as, unusually, the cabinet only approved the outlines of the budget in February amid intense disagreements, leaving it to the Knesset to handle the brass tacks.

“We are proud of our investment in strengthening Jewish identity,” Smotrich says.

In contrast, only NIS 2.1 billion ($600 million) of the 2021-2022 two-year state budget was applied to fulfilling promises made in coalition deals, according to the Berl Katznelson Foundation.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road during a protest against the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, outside the city of Bnei Brak, February 9, 2022. (Flash90)

At the outset of the center-left Labor party faction meeting, leader Merav Michaeli slammed the coalition’s planned allocations to partner parties’ priorities as “political protection payments.”

Michaeli said that the funds were “a bribe to the ultra-Orthodox, a bribe to settlers, and a bribe to the extreme and dangerous messianic right, which endangers Israel.”

In keeping the coalition together through discretionary allocations, Michaeli said, the funds will encourage the cohesion of allied parties that “vote against democracy, against equality, against women’s rights, against LGBT rights, against civil equality, against the prospects for peace — simply against the State of Israel.”

The centrist National Unity party also met on Monday to discuss the budget, in a meeting that was closed to the press.

Most Popular
read more: