Likud: Coalition disputes 'will be dealt with' in days

In latest coalition snag, UTJ’s Porush quits as minister of Meron pilgrimage

Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker tells Netanyahu that the Center for Holy Sites is not relinquishing control of the annual event, leaving him ‘with responsibility but no authority’

Jerusalem and Heritage Minister Meir Porush arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalem and Heritage Minister Meir Porush arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Senior United Torah Judaism lawmaker Meir Porush resigned Tuesday from his governmental role as the minister overseeing the annual Jewish pilgrimage to Mount Meron, as Haredi parties protested a lack of government support for their budgetary requests.

In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Porush said he’d made the decision due to a lack of authority, claiming that the annual springtime event, which draws hundreds of thousands to a northern shrine for a single night, was being organized by an outside firm that he had no role in choosing.

Porush in January was made Jerusalem, Tradition, and Mount Meron minister. He retains the other two roles.

The pilgrimage was the scene of Israel’s worst-ever civilian disaster on April 30, 2021, when 45 people were killed in a stampede caused by overcrowding on a faulty walkway. Amid a review of procedures to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe, the event was placed under the responsibility of a government minister.

At the center of Porush’s complaints are clashes over responsibility for the event between his own office, the Religious Affairs Ministry and the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites. The center is responsible for the Meron location and had been in charge of previous pilgrimage events.

Porush claimed in his letter that the center is refusing to give up its authority and had signed a contract for a production company to handle the coming celebrations without consulting him. He also said that an official he had appointed to oversee the celebrations was being sidelined.

“Due to the split of powers over the production of the event, attempts to thwart the czar and lack of response to the urgent needs for the upcoming celebrations,” Porush said he was unable to continue in the role where he is “charged with responsibility without authority.”

Porush noted that the current circumstances “contradict the coalition agreement between the Likud party you lead and the United Torah Judaism party.”

The Religious Affairs Ministry is led by a lawmaker for Shas, another Haredi party in the coalition.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance Lag B’Omer celebrations on Mount Meron on May 18, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Kikar Hashabbat news website reported that Porush was also considering quitting the cabinet altogether. His letter noted that he had only agreed to become a minister because of a legal ruling that only a minister could oversee the Meron pilgrimage.

During coalition talks, Porush had specifically asked for responsibility over any changes to be made at Meron as a result of the findings of the state inquiry committee still probing the tragic stampede. Porush, No. 3 on UTJ’s electoral list, had objected to the formation of the state inquiry to look into the tragedy.

Mount Meron, the site of the grave of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is traditionally visited by thousands of mainly ultra-Orthodox worshipers on the anniversary of his death during the holiday of Lag B’Omer, several weeks after Passover. This year, Lab B’Omer begins on the evening of May 8.

Israeli security officials and rescuers carry the bodies of victims who died during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Earlier Tuesday, Porush spoke to Ynet radio saying he had doubts regarding the extent to which the coalition agreements would be fulfilled.

“I am really not satisfied with what they want to implement or say they will implement or are implementing. In my opinion, when you think about an agreement, you sign it to keep to it, you don’t sign it to not keep to it,” he said.

However, Porush said the issues were likely to be resolved and the government remain in power.

“There may be grumbling, anger, and frustration, and naturally that happens. But these things are supposed to be worked out, so I don’t think this coalition is in danger of dying,” he said.

The resignation announcement came as Haredi parties have expressed anger over a lack of budget earmarks for Haredi education and public transportation in areas where many ultra-Orthodox people live.

Unnamed senior officials in UTJ were quoted Sunday morning by both the Walla and Srugim news sites as threatening not to support the budget in a crucial Knesset vote if the Haredi education system doesn’t receive the full funding promised in the party’s coalition agreement with the ruling Likud party.

That deal had promised that the budget for the Haredi education system would be made equal to that of other educational institutions, despite not including core curriculum subjects such as math and English.

A senior Likud source on Tuesday said he believed the disputes were “small funding gaps that will be dealt with in the coming days.”

Netanyahu seemed to respond to the grumbling in the coalition’s ranks, saying, “We created a strong right-wing government and it will complete its term.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset on February 27, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Porush’s resignation came the day after the anti-LGBTQ Noam party’s sole lawmaker quit the government, also claiming coalition agreements were not being upheld.

MK Avi Maoz sent Netanyahu a letter saying that he was resigning as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office because he was frustrated by an inability to bring about meaningful change.

An outspoken homophobe who has also made misogynistic statements about women’s role in society and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, Maoz had been promised control over an Education Ministry department that oversees external programming vendors for public schools. The appointment was met with outrage by pro-liberal forces.

He was also promised to lead a new authority to promote Jewish national identity, with vague powers.

Maoz indicated that on both fronts, he felt that he was not being given any real powers to effect change.

A spokesman for the Education Ministry confirmed Monday that the unit remains under its purview.

Despite stepping down from the government, Maoz said he will remain in Netanyahu’s 64-MK coalition.

Both resignations come as tensions rise between the factions of the coalition, with far-right parties expressing anger over the government’s security-related policies, which they view as too soft, and power struggles between ministers over various security and settlement-related responsibilities.

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