Religious Zionism's Strock tapped for 'national missions'

Likud readies for fight against clock to pass contentious bills needed for coalition

Netanyahu’s party to form 2 Knesset committees aimed at fast-tracking controversial legislative blitz to let convicted Deri be minister, hand far-right ministers wider powers

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, left, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, left, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Details were emerging Wednesday about presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned legislative blitz before his government is sworn in.

Hebrew media reported that Netanyahu’s Likud party plans to form two committees, each headed by a party lawmaker.

One of the committees, to be headed by MK Shlomo Karhi, will oversee a law change aimed at enabling Shas party leader Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister despite his recent conviction on tax charges, as well as legislation enabling far-right Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich to gain control of civil bodies with sweeping powers over the West Bank.

The second committee, to be headed by Likud MK Ofir Katz, will prepare legislation moving key responsibilities from police to the newly rebranded National Security Ministry, in order to fulfill promises made to incoming minister Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party.

The process can only begin once Netanyahu’s 64-strong right-religious bloc, which won a majority in the 120-member parliament in elections last month, replaces Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy of the outgoing coalition, thus gaining control of the legislative agenda. Levy has called the vote to replace him for this coming Monday.

Last month, President Isaac Herzog granted Netanyahu 28 days to notify him he has formed a government. That mandate expires at midnight this coming Sunday night, but Netanyahu is expected to request — and Herzog is expected to grant — an extension.

Netanyahu can request up to 14 additional days, which even if granted in full would still pose a challenging timeline for passing the complex legislation, each piece of which must pass a preliminary plenum reading, be approved by a Knesset committee, and then pass three more votes in the Knesset plenum.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu wants to swear in all the new ministers together, including Deri, with the structural changes stipulated in coalition agreements already in place.

Hebrew media outlets said Wednesday that Netanyahu aims to complete the legislation of all the laws by the end of next week.

However, members of the outgoing coalition are gearing up for a fight, arguing that the process will take at least two weeks.

The controversial series of laws includes the amendment to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws aimed at enabling Deri to be sworn in as a minister despite having been handed a suspended sentence for tax fraud earlier this year.

The attorney general has said that the Central Elections Committee should determine whether the current, vaguely worded law blocks a person who was given a suspended sentence from becoming a cabinet minister, but Netanyahu wants to sidestep the issue entirely by changing the law so that it explicitly only bars those who received custodial sentences from being ministers.

Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri after coalition talks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri, who served a prison sentence for bribery earlier in his career, is set to become minister of both health and the interior in the upcoming government, according to coalition agreements. He received the lenient suspended sentence earlier this year in a plea bargain apparently after the judge had been led to believe — falsely — that Deri intended to step down from politics.

Any law change enabling Deri to become a minister and any ministerial appointment he gets are also likely to be challenged in court.

Regarding Smotrich, his Religious Zionism party’s agreement with Likud says that he will become finance minister for the first two years of the next government — after which be will be replaced by Deri and become interior and health minister.

Smotrich will also be a minister in the Defense Ministry, where he will hold extensive powers over the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Activities in the West Bank (COGAT) and the Civil Administration, powerful bodies responsible for the government’s civil policy within the West Bank.

The move will likely bolster bids by pro-settlement hardliners to expand Israel’s presence in the territories while clamping down on Palestinians.

Under the agreement, Religious Zionism is also set to get control of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and a boosted version of the Settlement Affairs Ministry, which will be rebranded as the National Missions Ministry.

MK Orit Strock speaks during a visit of Religious Zionism party members in Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on October 26, 2022 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The party said Wednesday that MK Ofir Sofer was expected to become immigration minister, and MK Orit Strock was set to become national missions minister.

Strock’s ministry will retain its previous powers over West Bank settlements, national service issues and pre-military academies, and will also get departments carved out from other ministries dealing with Jewish identity, Jewish culture and “mission-based communities,” with a ministry official additionally serving as a member of national and local planning panels.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a suspected terror attack near the entrance to Jerusalem, on November 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As for Ben Gvir, he is positioned to receive an expanded form of the Public Security Ministry in the next government, which will be retitled the National Security Ministry.

He is further slated to receive additional authority, including over the West Bank’s Border Police, which currently operates under the Israel Defense Forces.

The move means the far-right party leader will have control over Border Police troops involved in policing riots in the West Bank as well as the evacuation of outposts.

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