Coalition pulls all bills from Knesset agenda, blaming ‘irresponsible’ Otzma Yehudit

Coalition whip Ofir Katz takes step a day after far-right party’s leader torpedoes Shas-fronted bill on funding religious councils and accuses PM of ‘running a one-man government’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a court hearing in Jerusalem on July 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a court hearing in Jerusalem on July 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Amid rising coalition tensions after the far-right Otzma Yehudit party tanked a Shas-backed amendment to the Religious Services Law on Monday, coalition whip Ofir Katz (Likud) announced the withdrawal of all legislation from the Knesset plenum’s agenda Tuesday.

According to Hebrew-language reports, Katz sent a message to Likud lawmakers stating that “due to the irresponsible behavior of Otzma Yehudit, no laws will be put on the agenda today.”

“I am not willing to rely on any party other than the coalition parties, and am not willing to manage [the coalition] based on the whims of its members. I hope that the situation in which the coalition is helping the opposition to hurt us will stop,” Katz wrote.

An Otzma Yehudit spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Katz’s announcement came after Otzma Yehudit chairman National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir entered into a bitter dispute with Aryeh Deri’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party on Monday evening, vowing not to vote with the coalition, as the escalating interparty bickering aggravated already strained relations between members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition.

Ben Gvir, who has been angling for months for a greater say in the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza, threatened to pull his support from a Shas-fronted bill on funding religious councils if he was not given a spot on the now-disbanded war cabinet or was otherwise involved in high-level discussions on war matters.

Likud MK Ofir Katz leading a special Knesset committee to discuss a bill to revoke terrorist citizenship, February 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas and Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party engaged in a war of words all through the evening, issuing dueling statements and personal attacks, casting blame on each other and threatening the future of the coalition.

Responding to Gvir’s threats not to support the bill, the government pulled the legislation from the docket, and a number of Shas MKs walked out of the Knesset in protest.

After the Shas walkout Monday evening, Ben Gvir directed his ire at Netanyahu, accusing him of ignoring his cabinet and making critical security decisions without consultation.

“We are in an absurd reality where we are treading water in Gaza, on the northern border, tying the hands of the IDF, conducting negotiations with irresponsible opening positions, heading toward a political agreement — all of it while surrendering to terror on every front, and the prime minister is running a one-man government,” Ben Gvir said in a statement.

“The prime minister needs to understand that that the ‘rule of the right’ is not a meaningless expression and the opinions of the coalition partners have weight. We did not join to be fans in the stands. We intend to exert an influence,” he added.

Following Monday evening’s quarrel, Shas Welfare Minister Ya’akov Margi tweeted that Ben Gvir’s “irresponsible conduct” will be remembered as having “caused the overthrow of the right-wing government during a war” while a party spokesman posted a status on WhatsApp asking “Who needs [anti-government protest group] Brothers in Arms when there’s Ben Gvir?”

The rapidly escalating fight and the bill’s removal exacerbated Shas’s lack of trust in the government in the wake of Netanyahu’s failure to pass the so-called Rabbis Bill last month, after which one Shas official complained to national broadcaster Kan that “there is no coalition [and] there is no discipline.”

Shas’ Ya’akov Margi (L) with party leader Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tuesday’s decision to withdraw all bills from the Knesset agenda was the latest manifestation of tension between members of Netanyahu’s increasingly fractious coalition, which some lawmakers have indicated may not have long to live.

On Monday morning, senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni hinted that the dissolution of the Knesset and an upcoming election was a possibility, telling a Yesh Atid MK, “That is where we are headed.”

And over the weekend, Settlement and National Projects Minister Orit Strock described recent months as a “miracle period” of settlement expansion ushered in by the government, but like Gafni indicated that she was unsure how long it would last.

Waxing lyrical about “what we’ve accomplished just in the past several months,” Strock said that “the hand is still outstretched” for land appropriation as long as the government, “with God’s help,” still stood.

But “it’s unclear that it will stay standing, completely unclear,” she added.

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