Otzma Yehudit chief accuses PM of being 'one-man government'

Some in coalition threaten its demise as Ben Gvir blocks key Shas bill, slams PM and Deri

Far-right minister says he won’t back law unless given a spot on disbanded war cabinet; Shas calls Otzma Yehudit chief an ‘inflated balloon,’ he labels Deri a lapdog of the left

Otzma Yehudi chief Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Shas leader Aryeh Deri seen speaking separately in the Knesset in this composite image. (Flash90)
Otzma Yehudi chief Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Shas leader Aryeh Deri seen speaking separately in the Knesset in this composite image. (Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir entered into a bitter dispute with the 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 right-wing 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 is not given a spot on the now-disbanded war cabinet. The bill was removed from a scheduled vote in the Knesset on Monday night.

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

Earlier in the evening, Ben Gvir issued a statement accusing Likud and Shas of reaching a deal with  Arab parties to block him from a seat on the war cabinet, later blasting Netanyahu as running a “one-man government.”

According to Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party, it had conditioned its support for Monday’s vote on funding for religious councils, and on Ben Gvir being granted a seat at the top-level council, even though Netanyahu disbanded the war cabinet several weeks ago, when MK Benny Gantz’s National Unity party left the government.

“This deal between Likud, [Shas chief Aryeh] Deri, and the terror supporters, in order to prevent the entry of Ben Gvir into the limited cabinet, is an embarrassment,” Otzma Yehudit said in a statement. It was not immediately clear what purported deal was being discussed, nor what role the Arab parties played in any makeup of the war cabinet.

The Knesset plenum hall, June 24, 2024. (Noam Moshkovitz/Knesset spokesperson)

After Ben 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.

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.”

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 new status on WhatsApp asking “Who needs [anti-government protest group] Brothers-in-Arms when there’s Ben Gvir?”

Only last month, Hebrew media reports indicated that Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Likud MK Yuli Edelstein’s recent promise to advance an ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill only “with broad agreement” had reportedly caused the coalition’s ultra-Orthodox member parties to reconsider whether they want to be part of the government.

Following Edelstein’s statement last month, multiple Hebrew media outlets reported that Shas and United Torah Judaism were weighing resigning their cabinet posts, while remaining in the coalition.

And on Monday morning, UTJ 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.”

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

“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 came to influence,” he added.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet with the troops who participated in a hostage rescue operation in Gaza, February 12, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In response, Shas slammed Ben Gvir for creating fissures in the government and accused him of trying to bring down the coalition.

“The right-wing bloc discovered this evening that Itamar Ben Gvir is nothing but an inflated balloon,” Shas said in a statement, highlighting a “series of embarrassing failures in his areas of responsibility.”

The ultra-Orthodox party called Ben Gvir “all noise and no action,” and warned that his “childish antics and self importance” are threatening to bring down the government from within.

“The right has always been brought down by people like him,” Shas said. “The public will judge.”

Ben Gvir responded by accusing Shas leader Deri of being a lapdog of the left-wing, “from Oslo until today,” a reference to Shas’s decision to abstain from voting in the Knesset on the Oslo Accords in 1993.

“Deri has admired since then the left, from [Yitzhak] Rabin through [Shimon] Peres until [Benny] Gantz, and he is the main source pushing the prime minister to adopt a policy of compromise,” the Otzma Yehudit statement added. “Even today Deri opposes the addition of Minister Ben Gvir to the war cabinet.”

The Shas leader seeks “surrender and obsequiousness” instead of a decisive victory, the statement claimed. “We will not be deterred by Deri’s threats. We were elected to carry out right-wing policies, in actions and not words,” the party said, asserting that it will not back down from its demand to see Ben Gvir “enter the war cabinet and change the approach from Deri’s conception of surrender to one of decisive victory.”

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri with Israeli minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir during a Shas party meeting, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/File)

In a statement, Gantz said the battle between the parties was a sad example of the government’s inability to function at a critical moment.

“Yesterday, the prime minister linked the return of the hostages to the fall of the government,” he said. “Today, Ben Gvir connects a spot on the narrow [war] cabinet with political votes in the Knesset. The security of Israel during its toughest war in history has fallen a victim to political whims.”

With the departure of Gantz from the government last month, Netanyahu effectively disbanded the three member body, which had also included Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and several observers, Deri among them.

That has not stopped Ben Gvir, a member of the broader security cabinet, from continuing to push for an expanded role in managing the war, while Netanyahu’s Likud party accused him of being unfit for such a role, due to his tendency to leak information to the press.

Shas, meanwhile, is refusing to back down from its demand to pass controversial legislation that would amend the Religious Services Law, which regulates how much the government and municipalities contribute respectively to the budgets of the bodies providing religious services to communities at the city and regional council levels.

The funding bill, written by MK Erez Malul, drew sharp criticism from some watchdog groups due to concerns that it could serve as a backdoor for reintroducing some of the provisions of the failed Rabbis Bill recently promoted by his ultra-Orthodox Shas party — a claim that Malul and other backers of the legislation denied.

Members of the Knesset seen on the floor of the plenum on July 8, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesman’s Office)

It states that the religious services minister, currently Shas’s Michael Malkieli, will be allowed, with the agreement of the finance minister, to pay for “salary expenses and positions beyond what is stated” in the law.

According to the bill’s explanatory notes, the legislation would allow the government to help pay the “salaries of regional rabbis, rabbis of moshavim and ritual bath attendants without burdening the regional authorities and councils” — both within communities featuring religious councils and those without such a body.

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