Likud sources have reportedly said there is no chance that MK Bezalel Smotrich will be appointed justice minister after the lawmaker stated he would like to see Israel governed by religious law.
Smotrich, a member of the national-religious Union of Right-Wing Parties, stepped up his demand to be appointed justice minister after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday fired the previous minister, Ayelet Shaked. URWP was one of the parties prepared to sign a coalition agreement with Netanyahu, although when talks ultimately failed Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called fresh elections in September, just five months after April’s vote.
Hours after Shaked was dismissed, Smotrich said, “We want the justice portfolio because we want to restore the Torah justice system.” Smotrich then doubled down on his position on Monday morning, telling Kan public radio that “the Jewish people is a special people that needs to live according to the Torah.”
Sources close to Netanyahu said Monday night that Smotrich “can forget about the justice portfolio now. After those statements, Netanyahu won’t allow him to be justice minister,” the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper reported. Those remarks were reiterated Tuesday morning by MK Miki Zohar of Likud.
Likud is worried that Smotrich’s comments will help its political nemesis Yisrael Beytenu, led by secularist MK Avigdor Liberman, who refused to join the emerging coalition amid a standoff with ultra-Orthodox parties, claiming he was championing secular rights in the face of religious coercion.
“Liberman will play up these things in the election campaign,” Yedioth quoted a senior Likud official as saying. “It is his most powerful weapon. Smotrich has no political understanding if that is what he has to say. It is only meant to irritate and stir things up. It has no substance.”
Smotrich responded to the newspaper report in a tweet Tuesday, “Come on. As if Netanyahu was really in a hurry to give me the justice portfolio rather than to, say, Shelly Yachimovich.”
He was referring to a Labor party MK to whom Netanyahu reportedly offered the post if her party joined him in forming a government.
“The State of Israel will not be a halacha [Jewish religious law] state,” Netanyahu tweeted Monday, amid an uproar over Smotrich’s remarks.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, also of Likud, in a closed faction meeting Monday said “Smotrich’s statements are causing damage to Likud and helping Liberman,” Yedioth reported.
Liberman also condemned Smotrich’s comments Monday.
“These are no longer comments coming from a delusional hilltop youth, but a statement of intent,” he said, referring to ultra-nationalists in the West Bank. “We will prevent that, we won’t lend those efforts a hand. Jewish law is an important and critical part of the Israeli justice system, but Israeli law cannot be Torah law.”
Likud’s position on the secular-religious status quo took another blow Monday after a draft of its coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party was leaked to the Kan public broadcaster, showing it stated that the new government would amend laws to enable the segregation of men and woman in public services and events. While ultra-Orthodox groups favor segregation due to modesty considerations, opponents consider it discrimination against women.
The draft agreement, which Likud claimed was never signed, drew condemnation from Blue and White party No. 2 Yair Lapid, who accused Netanyahu of turning Israel into a theocracy.
“The fact that Bibi surrendered to the demands of United Torah Judaism to introduce a law on segregating men and women in public spaces is nothing short of madness,” Lapid tweeted.
“The man who has been speaking out against Iran for 20 years now wants to import it,” he said, referring to Tehran’s strict Islamic theocracy.
According to the Yedioth report, the leading candidates for interim justice minister are Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Science Minister Ofir Akunis, and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, all from the Likud party. Netanyahu is expected to tap a new interim minister on Tuesday.