'The rise of a left-wing government will be on his head'

In fresh coalition upheaval, Otzma Yehudit boycotts Knesset votes over budget dispute

Party demands more funds for Negev and Galilee, handing plenum wins to opposition; coalition official blasts Ben Gvir: ‘Cares more for media coverage than maintaining government’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (right) walks with Matityahu Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization, after a meeting at Jerusalem's Western Wall, May 7, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (right) walks with Matityahu Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization, after a meeting at Jerusalem's Western Wall, May 7, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

In its latest act of coalition destabilization, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party walked out of Knesset floor votes Wednesday in a bid to pressure allied parties to divert more funds to its priorities in the 2023-2024 state budget — specifically the Negev and Galilee Ministry, held by the party.

Otzma Yehudit has been publicly pressing to increase funding to “Judaize the Negev and Galilee” through its ministry since Sunday, but has not specified a desired figure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir shortly after the party’s vote boycott. A source close to Ben Gvir said the premier agreed that there was a problem with current allocations, and that a solution must be found.

But coalition chairman and Likud MK Ofir Katz slammed the party, saying it was “paving the way for the fall of the right-wing government.”

And Hebrew media outlets cited an unnamed senior figure in the coalition, who similarly said that should the coalition break apart, “the rise of a left-wing government will be on [Ben Gvir’s] head.”

“Ben Gvir cares more about media coverage than maintaining the right-wing government and the integrity of the coalition. In a government, problems are solved together, and despite his efforts to spin this, he is not the only one who cares about the Negev and the Galilee,” the statement continued.

“Maybe it really is better that they collapse the government. We’ll go to elections and the public will kick out those who brought down a right-wing government.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on May 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The source close to Ben Gvir insisted that that party was only “asking for equality,” referring to the fact that the Negev and Galilee Ministry received NIS 460 million in discretionary funds — money promised under political deals — in the draft budget, and that other parties had apparently received larger sums as part of such political deals.

A total of NIS 13.7 billion in discretionary funding was divvied up between parties in the upcoming budget.

Otzma Yehudit griped that far-right Religious Zionism — led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — received over a billion shekels for party-held ministries and ultra-Orthodox parties got a NIS 3.7 billion boost for yeshiva students, one of their core concerns.

Discretionary funds are only a portion of the trillion-shekel, two-year budget expected to be approved by the end of May, but have ballooned from NIS 1.2 billion in the last budget to its current figure as a result of political pressures, and Otzma Yehudit apparently wants to receive a larger slice of the pie.

Ben Gvir is considered the most volatile link in the Netanyahu government’s chain, and has staged several boycotts and public protests against their shared government in the five months since being sworn in at the end of last year.

Two weeks ago Ben Gvir announced his party would boycott Knesset activity due to what it viewed as the government’s soft response to a barrage of rockets from Gaza. Israel’s launch of a military operation in the Strip days later ended that dispute.

Although Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism ran for Knesset on a joint ticket, the two parties have come to loggerheads over many of their shared priorities. Both parties stand for increasing Jewish control over Israel and the West Bank, and have pressed to increase internal security for poorly governed areas within Israel proper, primarily in the southern Negev and northern Galilee regions.

On Wednesday, Smotrich toured an agricultural facility in the Galilee, tweeting that “the Israeli government stands with the right-wing and with the Galilee.”

Nodding to support for the region’s economic development, he added that: “We are fully on it.”

Negev and Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf immediately chided Treasury chief Smotrich for sharing “empty catchphrases” amid the budgetary fight.

“If the Galilee is important to you, do not cut the budgets for the advancement of the Negev and the Galilee,” he tweeted.

While Wasserlauf’s ministry is nominally the government home for supporting the Negev and Galilee’s development, the authority and responsibility to promote projects in the area are spread across several different ministries.

In addition to promoting jobs and industry, which Smotrich called the “catalyst for the Galilee,” Smotrich backed a controversial plan to promote new housing in the region, through a plan to transfer a portion of commercial municipal taxes from more prosperous to less prosperous towns — with a preference for those far from Israel’s center.

Critics express doubt that the plan will serve its purpose and point to several communities in the Negev and Galilee with surplus housing, as well as the frustration of municipalities that will see their municipal taxes confiscated. Since Monday, several large cities, including Tel Aviv and Haifa, have been engaged in a municipal services strike in protest.

Wednesday’s boycott handed a rare win to the opposition, with the Knesset passing in preliminary readings three opposition-led bills. When Otzma Yehudit’s six lawmakers boycotted the votes, the coalition decided to switch its position and support the bills, rather than register a loss when it no longer had the numbers to defeat the proposals.

One of the bills was to provide funding for learning disability testing to economically disadvantaged families.

Although the bill still requires two committee preparation rounds and three additional floor votes to pass into law, opposition party Yesh Atid, whose MK Meir Cohen — a former welfare minister — sponsored the bill, hailed the results as a “victory not only for Yesh Atid and the opposition, but for the citizens of Israel.”

Two additional opposition bills passed their preliminary readings due to the boycott, both sponsored by Yesh Atid. One would help Israelis transfer their complete medical records when they change health insurance providers and the other would require new construction close to the shore to include protection for marine life.

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