Jewish Home said livid at Smotrich for ‘hijacking’ coalition talks

Sources close to party head Rafi Peretz say rogue lawmaker is misrepresenting the URWP’s demands for joining Netanyahu’s government

Bezalel Smotrich (R) and Rafi Peretz (L) of the Union of Right Wing Parties hold a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019, (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Bezalel Smotrich (R) and Rafi Peretz (L) of the Union of Right Wing Parties hold a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019, (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The leader of the Jewish Home party is reportedly fuming at National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich, who apparently went rogue in presenting their joint right-wing slate’s coalition demands to the Likud party without his consent.

Rafi Peretz, who heads the Union of Right-Wing Parties alliance that is composed of the Jewish Home and National Union and the far-right Otzma Yehudit, was considering dissolving the alliance over Smotrich’s  posturing, according to the Ynet news website, though other reports suggested the two politicians have reconciled.

Smotrich’s demands — presented as the URWP conditions — were leaked to the press on Monday night though coalition talks between URWP and Likud are not officially scheduled to begin until next week.

Smotrich was insisting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commit to annexing all Israeli settlements in the West Bank in exchange for the faction sponsoring legislation that would grant the premier immunity from prosecution, a spokesman for a senior party lawmaker confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday.

He previously began to publicly press for a long list of demands, ranging from high level ministerial portfolios for his party to legislation that will blunt the power of the Supreme Court to act as a check on the Knesset.

Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)

“He crossed our red lines and presented his coalition demands as if they are the demands of the entire slate,” complained one Jewish Home official, according to the Ynet news site.

“He is trying to lead the coalition negotiations alone and over Peretz’s head,” the source continued. “His behavior is embarrassing. He released a draft of demands that aren’t at all acceptable to us. We don’t understand what he’s trying to do.”

“Smotrich presented demands that don’t exist. He should remember that we’re four and he’s two,” the official said, referring to the number of lawmakers the Jewish Home and National Union have in the parliament, respectively.

Peretz on Monday night canceled a meeting with Smotrich representatives that was scheduled to hammer out the URWP coalition objectives and was considering severing ties with Smotrich immediately, according to Ynet.

But according to the Kan public broadcaster, the two later smoothed out their differences.

“Rabbi Rafi spoke to Bezalel. It was a sharp conversation, Bezalel admitted his mistake, retracted it, and committed that from now on, he will act only in coordination [with Jewish Home],” Jewish Home told Kan. “From Rabbi Rafi’s perspective, their differences were resolved.”

Bezalel Smotrich casts his ballot at a voting station in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim on April 9, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

In a move seen as a bone to Netanyahu, reports said Smotrich will put forth during coalition negotiations a bill he proposed during the last Knesset, which would provide automatic immunity to any member of parliament.

But Peretz, according to Kan, insisted there was no such offer was being made by the URWP as part of the coalition agreements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises in a Channel 12 TV interview to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, April 6, 2019. (Channel 12 news screenshot)

If it is passed, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit then decides to indict Netanyahu for a series of graft probes on which a hearing is expected to be held in the coming months, the premier would be granted immunity unless a majority of the Knesset votes to strip him of that right.

In the weeks leading up to the April 9 election, Netanyahu repeatedly said he would not push such legislation himself, but was more coy when asked about others doing so.

In exchange for the immunity law, Smotrich insisted that Netanyahu make good on his campaign pledge to annex all of Israel’s West Bank settlements, which are home to some 400,000 Israeli Jews. Observers say such a move, which would come as the Trump administration prepares to roll out its long awaiting peace plan, would put a nail in the coffin of hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The list of demands released on Monday included the passage of a High Court override bill that would allow the Knesset, with a majority vote, to re-enact legislation that had been struck down by the top legal body. The legislation, or a version of it, is supported by several of the right-wing factions expected to make up Netanyahu’s coalition and which have seen some of their legislative efforts struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Some of the long list of demands, which also include a third, more minor ministerial portfolio — such as the Jerusalem or Diaspora Affairs Ministry — are widely understood to be a negotiating tactic aimed at putting as much pressure as possible on Netanyahu, who ostensibly will not agree to every one of the far-right slate’s stipulations. However, the URWP is an avowed backer of settlement annexation, and Smotrich was championing the demand for the amended immunity legislation in the previous Knesset and has been adamant that he will get it passed this time.

Among the other wish-list items on the docket is a demand that the government pass an expanded version of the so-called “Norwegian law,” which allows an MK from any party who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next-in-line person on their party’s list to enter parliament.

The current law only allows a party to utilize the Norwegian law for one of its appointed ministers, but URWP wants to ensure that its slate’s lone Otzma Yehudit representative, Itamar Ben Gvir, gets into the Knesset. At number seven on the slate’s list, the activist-attorney is currently two spots shy from doing so. A successful passage of such a law would lead to both Peretz and Smotrich resigning from the Knesset to focus solely on the work of their respective ministries and in turn allowing Ben Gvir and settler-activist Orit Strock into parliament.

Union of Right Wing Parties candidates (from L-R) Rafi Peretz, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich pose for a photo on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy)

The demands also sought for the establishment of ministerial committee, headed by a URWP member, that will be responsible for legalizing settlement outposts and wildcat homes throughout the West Bank, this in addition to responsibility over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division. It also will seek the abolition of the Civil Administration, the defense ministry body responsible for running much of government bureaucracy for Israeli settlers. Instead, such approvals would be granted by the relevant government offices.

Also featured on the list is the cancellation of the Disengagement Law, which would allow Israelis to return to the four northern West Bank settlements which were evacuated in 2005 at the same time as the unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Smotrich is also eyeing more say among Knesset members over the appointment of judges, including through a parliamentary hearing.

He will also seek to bar the attorney general from taking a position against that of the cabinet, and prevent the state comptroller from reporting on the activities of government offices in real-time. Ombudsman Yosef Shapira has published reports over the past several years that have been heavily critical of several ministries funneling of funds toward illegal West Bank outposts.

Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah claimed Monday that the list appeared to have been written by Netanyahu himself. “The vision of the nightmare government is coming true,” he said in a statement. “Netanyahu will give — to Smotrich — and take — immunity for himself.”

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