PM to partners: 'Stop the threats, get off your high horse'

Far-right MK threatens to vote against budget if ‘Jewish identity’ unit not formed

Avi Maoz says ruling bloc will be down a member if cabinet doesn’t discuss allocating $90 million for new department that Netanyahu promised him

File: Noam chair Avi Maoz speaks during a function at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
File: Noam chair Avi Maoz speaks during a function at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Far-right MK Avi Maoz on Friday threatened to vote against the government’s budget if funds are not allocated to establish a “Jewish identity” unit, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged when he agreed to join the coalition.

With a relatively comfortable 64-majority in the Knesset, the coalition appears likely to pass its first budget by the May 29 deadline, but a handful of its lawmakers have threatened to torpedo the initiative in what could make the critical vote less of a slam dunk for Netanyahu.

Upon the government’s formation in late December, Netanyahu appointed Maoz — who heads the one-man, anti-LGBTQ Noam party — to become deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office with powers to establish “Jewish identity” programs in a new Jewish National Identity office.

The MK, an outspoken homophobe who has made misogynistic statements about women’s role in society and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, was also slated, as part of the coalition deal, to be given control over an Education Ministry department that oversees external programming vendors for public schools. The appointment was met with outrage by opposition lawmakers, parents and some local authorities. That unit currently remains under the purview of the Education Ministry.

But in February, Maoz announced his decision to quit the government, writing in a letter of resignation to Netanyahu that he was “shocked to find there was no serious intention of honoring the coalition deal” making him a deputy minister with powers to establish “Jewish identity” programs.

Nonetheless, he clarified that he would remain part of the coalition and has continued to vote with the right-wing, religious ruling bloc since.

The cabinet votes to approve the 2023-2024 budget, in Jerusalem on February 24, 2023. (Courtesy)

Then last month, Maoz told the Kikar HaShabbat Haredi news site that “in the coming few weeks, it is possible that I will return to my post, with all the powers” he was promised.

But that has yet to happen, with Maoz informing the government’s cabinet secretary on Friday that the coalition will be one vote down when the budget is submitted to the Knesset plenum.

Maoz said he was informed the $90 million proposal for the new unit that he is demanding would not be brought before the cabinet for approval at the next meeting in order for it to be included in the budget.

“I am sorry to inform you that if a government decision confirming this detail is not made before the budget is approved, I will not be able to support the budget and will even vote against it. What this means is that the coalition shrinks to only 63 members,” he wrote in the letter.

The letter was sent just a day after Hebrew media reported that other sparring coalition members were threatening to quit the government if their demands are not met in the upcoming budget.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told Netanyahu he will resign from his position if the Haredi parties receive an additional NIS 600 million ($164 million) in the upcoming budget that they have demanded. Smotrich’s office denied he made such a threat.

According to multiple media reports, the Agudat Yisrael faction of the United Torah Judaism party has also threatened to pull out of the coalition and vote down the budget if they do not receive the demanded funds.

Quoting unnamed sources within the coalition, the Walla news site reported that Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush have threatened to resign from their roles, allowing them to return to the Knesset as the fourth and fifth members of their faction under the so-called Norwegian law in order to vote against the budget.

Head of the Finance committee MK Moshe Gafni and Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich at a hearing on the state budget in the Knesset Finance Committee, April 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Agudat Yisrael is citing promises made in their coalition deal with Likud. The ultra-Orthodox parties are seeking the additional NIS 600 million to fund full-time religious scholars in addition to the billions already pledged to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Adding to the dysfunction, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has ordered Otzma Yehudit lawmakers to boycott Knesset votes in a bid to pressure allied parties to divert more funds to his party’s priorities in the budget — specifically the Negev and Galilee Ministry held by the faction.

Otzma Yehudit has griped that other parties are receiving billions for their projects while it has been given less for issues it wants to advance, particularly encouraging Jewish settlement in the country’s north and south.

Netanyahu and Ben Gvir met on Wednesday in an attempt to solve the dispute. According to Channel 12, the atmosphere was not positive — Netanyahu told Ben Gvir that there was no way to redirect the funds to his priorities.

Netanyahu urged unity at a Thursday event attended by Smotrich and Ben Gvir at a Jerusalem yeshiva.

“We’re not going to have better government, a good, nationalist government that is concerned with the future of the people of Israel. The time has come to stop with the threats, stop the boycotts, get off your high horse,” Netanyahu said. “To work together and pass the budget for the good of the people and the settlements. For the good of the people of Israel and the Torah of Israel.”

Ben Gvir fired back, saying, “The judicial reform is not the high horse, and neither is evicting Khan al-Ahmar,” an illegal West Bank Bedouin encampment the right-wing seeks to dismantle.

“This government needs to be a full right-wing government. A government that protects Jerusalem,” Ben Gvir said.

On Friday, the Walla news site quoted a senior official in Netanyahu’s office who insisted that the original budget proposal would no be altered to meet the demands of Likud’s coalition partners.

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