Newly appointed Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Monday said he “works for God” — and not for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appointed him — after drawing outrage and ridicule for calling for Israel to be governed by Jewish religious law, like in biblical times.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu tapped the top two lawmakers in the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) as ministers in his interim cabinet, putting party leader Rafi Peretz in charge of the Education Ministry and giving its No. 2, Smotrich, the transportation portfolio, along with a spot on the high-level security cabinet. Peretz received observer status on that body.
“I am not the prime minister’s man, I am a man of the people,” Smotrich told the Kan public broadcaster. “I am a man of the public who sent me, and — I hope I’m not starting an outrage here — I work for God and do what I believe is good for the State of Israel and the people of Israel, according to my worldview.”
Smotrich acknowledged during the TV interview that, as a minister, he would have to vote for moves he does not necessarily agree with.
“When you move from the stands to the field, on the one hand you have more influence, but on the other hand you take ministerial responsibility also for decisions you aren’t happy with. You have to bite the bullet,” he said.
Earlier, Smotrich said he would continue to gun for his preferred position of Justice Minister, despite recent comments by officials in the ruling Likud party that seemingly put him out of the running for the job.
“Our hope to get the justice portfolio has not disappeared, but for this we will have to work hard and win in the upcoming elections,” he said.
The appointment of the hardline lawmaker drew swift and snarky criticism from opposition lawmakers and others.
The head of left-wing party Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, castigated Netanyahu for “including a messianic warmonger in Israel’s [security] cabinet.”
“So Smotrich in the security cabinet means we’ll launch unnecessary wars, but not on Shabbat?” she quipped on Twitter.
Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh tweeted that he “hopes Smotrich won’t be too disappointed when he discovers that it’s impossible to build a road back to the middle ages.”
His colleague Ahmed Tibi tweeted that “Transportation Minister Smotrich will bring the gasoline from home,” a reference to his 2005 arrest over suspicions that he and others protesting the Gaza disengagement planned an attack with 700 liters of gasoline. He was never charged.
Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz assailed Netanyahu, linking the development with recent reports about Israel’s inflated budget shortfall.
“Netanyahu doesn’t have one minute to deal with a NIS 50 billion ($13.85 billion) deficit, but he has plenty of time to deal with jobs and appointing Smotrich as cabinet member and transportation minister,” Gantz said.
“The next step will be to replace traffic laws with halacha laws,” he added.
Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, wondered how Smotrich would navigate the security cabinet that was not being run by the biblical King David or King Solomon.
“To give Smotrich a role in steering Israel’s security shows that Netanyahu can no longer distinguish what’s good for the state from his personal needs,” Lapid tweeted.
The Union of Right-Wing Parties is an amalgamation of the right-wing Jewish Home, National Union, and Otzma Yehudit national religious parties, which won five of the 120 Knesset seats in the April elections.
Smotrich had declared they would join Netanyahu’s coalition on condition that he receive the justice portfolio. But Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition and moved to dissolve the parliament, with new elections now set for September 17.
Earlier this month, the premier dismissed education minister Naftali Bennett and justice minister Ayelet Shaked from their posts in a cabinet shakeup ahead of the September snap polls.
The URWP launched an aggressive campaign for the justice and education posts, saying that Smotrich’s background in law made him a natural fit for the former position, while Peretz’s decades of work in the field of education made him suitable for the latter job.
But after Smotrich’s controversial remarks calling for Israel to be ruled by Jewish law like in biblical times, Netanyahu tapped Likud loyalist Amir Ohana for the justice post, angering the URWP.
Reports in Hebrew-language media said that Netanyahu did not want to give Smotrich the justice portfolio, or his second choice, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, due to his hardline views.
In appointing Ohana justice minister — and asserting that the position would not be an interim one — Netanyahu appeared to signal to URWP that only one of the two portfolios the party had demanded would be available to it after the next election in September, should Likud win.
In the wake of Ohana’s installation at the Justice Ministry, Peretz and Smotrich had bickered over who was more deserving of the Education Ministry, but then quickly dropped the spat and pledged unity.
Smotrich has been lobbying several right-wing factions to unite and run on a single ticket to increase the number of seats they can win and better drive nationalist agendas, such as annexing the West Bank.