Opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that MK Itamar Ben Gvir can be a minister if the former premier forms a government after the upcoming elections, reversing his previously stated opposition to having the far-right politician in his cabinet.
“He certainly can; anyone can,” Netanyahu said, when asked directly, during a conference hosted by Channel 14, whether Ben Gvir can be a minister in his planned right-wing government. “He will be, and whoever is elected from the Religious Zionism [party can serve as a minister]. But I assume [Ben Gvir] will be elected, and it’s completely clear.”
Ahead of the previous elections in 2021, Netanyahu declared Ben Gvir “unfit” for a ministerial post, but acknowledged he would be part of any coalition the then-premier hoped to assemble.
At the time, Ben Gvir — a disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane — had yet to serve as a Knesset member and was shunned by many on the right.
Since then, however, he has skyrocketed in popularity, with polls predicting the Netanyahu-brokered alliance under Religious Zionism, of which Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit faction is a part, will emerge as the third largest party in the November 1 vote. The joint slate is headed by Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, followed by Ben Gvir in the second slot, and also includes the anti-LGBT Noam party.
While Ben Gvir’s rapid ascent has thrust him into the mainstream of Israeli politics, Netanyahu has continued to maintain some distance from the Otzma Yehudit leader, with the two never having been photographed together.
According to a recent report, Netanyahu was warned by a senior US senator that Ben Gvir’s inclusion in a government could harm ties between Washington and Jerusalem.
The former prime minister stressed Sunday that key ministries will remain with his Likud party if he helms the next coalition. He specifically ruled out giving the Defense Ministry to Smotrich, who has expressed interest in the post and other top ministries for Religious Zionism.
“Everyone will be partners in the government, full and respected partners, but the main portfolios — defense, foreign, and finance — these portfolios need to be in Likud’s hands,” the Likud chairman said.
Besides floating possible ministerial positions for Religious Zionism, Smotrich has proposed far-reaching legal reforms that would drastically curtail judicial authority and could possibly lead to the termination of Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trial.
Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing in the trio of graft cases he is charged in, said last week that he would “examine” Smotrich’s proposals, some of which Likud MKs have backed.
Speaking at a separate conference on Sunday, Smotrich said he would not agree to a situation in which his faction joins a government led by Netanyahu but Otzma Yehudit is left out.
“In no way will we accept a boycott of Itamar,” he told the B’Sheva group.
In his comments, Netanyahu also insisted that he will only seek a government with the parties in his right-religious bloc, if they receive a majority of ballots next week. Along with Religious Zionism, Likud is allied with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.
Recent surveys have predicted the Likud-led bloc will come just shy of a majority in the elections.
The same surveys have also forecast no clear path for Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his partners to form a government, suggesting Israel’s prolonged parliamentary turmoil could continue after the elections — the fifth since April 2019. Israeli opinion polls are often unreliable in predicting final results, but can offer a general overview of public opinion.