Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Friday that Prime Minister-Designate Benjamin Netanyahu was allowing far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir to become the de facto premier in the next government after Likud signed an agreement with the extremist lawmaker’s Otzma Yehudit party that grants him an expanded security role.
The agreement signed hours earlier outlined the positions and authority that Otzma Yehudit will receive in the next government. Ben Gvir will be given a new title of national security minister and will be in charge of the national police force in addition to overseeing the Border Police’s West Bank Division.
To date, that unit has been under the auspices of the Defense Ministry and the IDF’s Central Command, with only limited input given to the Public Security Ministry.
The move means the far-right party leader will have control over Border Police troops involved in policing riots in the West Bank as well as the evacuation of settlement outposts, whose presence he has long supported.
Gantz said that establishing “a private army for Ben Gvir in [the West Bank] is dangerous … and will create real security failures.”
The outgoing minister also warned that Netanyahu’s reported decision to transfer control over the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that governs aspects of civilian life in some 60 percent of the West Bank — to the Finance Ministry, which Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich is slated to head, will lead to criticism from the international community that Israel is carrying out “de-facto annexation” of the West Bank.
“The agreement between Ben Gvir and Netanyahu marks the direction in which the next government is heading — the dismantlement of the government’s powers into fragments of ministries based on political needs; and the dismantlement of operational frameworks in the IDF, which will damage the functionality of the IDF and the police,” Gantz wrote in published comments Friday.
“Netanyahu’s conduct is an admission that the real prime minister is going to be Ben Gvir,” he added.
In addition to the National Security Ministry, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party will also run an expanded version of the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee; the newly created Heritage Ministry; the Knesset’s Public Security Committee; the Knesset Special Committee for the Israeli Citizens’ Fund (which oversees state revenue from gas drilling), in addition to receiving the post of deputy economy minister.
The Negev and Galilee Ministry will be headed up by Otzma Yehudit No. 2 Yitzhak Wasserlauf, and Amichai Eliyahu will take on the Heritage Ministry portfolio.
The Heritage Ministry is to be created from a split of the existing Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry. The Ynet news site said the office had long been considered unnecessary by treasury officials, as Jerusalem has a municipality and heritage studies are already included in the Education Ministry.
Ynet said the splits would cost Israeli taxpayers more than NIS 60 million ($17 million) per year and about a quarter of a billion shekels ($73 million) in four years.
The Negev and Galilee Ministry will receive an annual budget of NIS 2 billion (some $580 million) and will also be responsible for carrying out the regulation of new West Bank settlements.
MK Almog Cohen will be deputy economy minister and former IDF general Zvika Fogel will chair the Public Security Committee. MK Limor Son Har-Melech will take Otzma Yehudit’s position as the rotating chair of the gas royalties committee.
The Likud-Otzma Yehudit deal also includes an agreement to establish a widescale national guard, and the expansion of reserve troop mobilization in the Border Police.
There will also be an “Expanded Southern Law,” which will permit the shooting of thieves caught stealing weapons from military bases.
Last year, the military updated its rules of engagement to allow soldiers to more easily open fire at suspected gun thieves and smugglers, in a bid to crack down on crime. It was not immediately clear what the impact of the legislative change would be.
The coalition deal was signed by Otzma Yehudit’s Chanamel Dorfman and Likud’s MK Yariv Levin. Dorfman, described by Ben Gvir as his “right-hand man,” helped establish an organization that donates money to incarcerated Jewish terrorists and extremists.
In 2013 footage aired by Channel 12 on Friday, Dorfman appeared as the groom in the so-called “knives wedding” where he and other participants waved knives as they danced to songs referencing revenge attacks on Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority also stated its concerns over Ben Gvir’s expanded authority in the West Bank.
“We view the catastrophic consequences of the agreements on the conflict with severity, and in particular the consequences of the powers that Netanyahu granted to Ben Gvir in regards to the occupied Palestinian territory,” the PA Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“The ministry renews its warning against the consequences of these agreements on the efforts to restore calm, especially since armed militia of settlers have already begun to take on an organized nature in military formations in light of their feeling that the Israeli election results provide backing for this conduct and may encourage them to commit crimes against Palestinian citizens,” it added.
The accord with Otzma Yehudit signaled Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s slow but steady progress in his efforts toward forming a coalition following the election three-and-a-half weeks ago.
The protracted negotiations have dampened Netanyahu’s hopes of quickly forming a government after the November 1 election delivered the bloc he leads a 64-seat majority in the 120-lawmaker Knesset. Talks have hit roadblocks due to his partners’ growing and sometimes competing demands.
Channel 13 news reported that Shas was set to sign an agreement with the Likud on Sunday, and United Torah Judaism after that. The network said there were still difficulties with Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party, as he seeks major control over settlements in the West Bank.
Smotrich had demanded to head either the Defense or the Finance Ministry, and Netanyahu appeared to have agreed in recent days to give him the latter for at least the first two years of the government. Despite the reported progress, talks with Smotrich continued to be mired in mutual accusations, with Religious Zionism claiming Netanyahu had gone back on promises and Likud accusing the far-right party of making exaggerated demands in exchange for fealty to the nascent government.
In addition to the first two years in the Finance Ministry, Smotrich has reportedly demanded the settlement affairs and immigrant absorption portfolios, as well as chair of four out of 11 coalition-controlled Knesset committees.
Citing sources involved in the talks, Haaretz reported that Smotrich also demanded control over the state’s Jewish conversion system.
Channel 12 said that Netanyahu would not likely be able to form a coalition in the coming week because he still needs to pass legislation that would allow twice-convicted Shas leader Aryeh Deri to become a minister. Current law bars those recently convicted of criminal offenses from being appointed as a minister.
Netanyahu will also need to pass legislation to enable the expansion of Ben Gvir’s authorities as national security ministry.
The Likud leader has until December 11 to form a government, though he can request a 14-day extension if he fails to do so in time.