Ministers on Sunday approved by telephone poll the appointment of the top two lawmakers in the Union of Right-Wing Parties as ministers in the interim cabinet, putting Rafi Peretz in charge of the Education Ministry and giving Bezalel Smotrich the transportation portfolio.
Smotrich was also appointed a member of the high-level security cabinet, while Peretz received observer status.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop the security cabinet appointment of Smotrich, a hardliner who recently called for Israel to be governed by Jewish religious law as in biblical times and said he works for God, not the prime minister.
“This is security negligence in exchange for legal immunity,” charged Gantz. “The security situation in the region is deteriorating, and we are just a short decision away from fighting that we have not seen in the Middle East since the Gulf War.”
Smotrich has said he would push to restore legislation automatically granting Knesset members parliamentary immunity, in a bid to shield Netanyahu from criminal charges.
The Union of Right-Wing Parties, an amalgamation of the right-wing Jewish Home, National Union, and far-right Otzma Yehudit national religious parties, won five of the 120 Knesset seats in the April elections.
Smotrich had declared his party would join Netanyahu’s coalition on condition that he receive the justice portfolio. But Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government and moved to dissolve parliament, with new elections now set for September 17.
Earlier this month, he dismissed education minister Naftali Bennett and justice minister Ayelet Shaked from their posts in a cabinet shakeup ahead of the September snap polls.
The URWP launched an aggressive campaign for both posts, saying that Smotrich’s background in law made him a natural fit for the former position, while Peretz’s decades of work in the field of education made him suitable for the latter job.
But after Smotrich’s controversial remarks calling for Israel to be ruled by Jewish law, Netanyahu tapped Likud loyalist Amir Ohana for the justice post, angering the URWP. Reports in Hebrew-language media said that Netanyahu did not want to give Smotrich the justice portfolio, or his second choice, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, due to his hardline views.
In appointing Ohana justice minister — and asserting that the position would not be an interim one — Netanyahu appeared to signal to URWP that only one of the two portfolios the party had demanded would be available to it after the next election in September, should Likud win.
In the wake of Ohana’s installation at the Justice Ministry, Peretz and Smotrich had bickered over who was more deserving of the Education Ministry, but then quickly dropped the spat and pledged unity.
Smotrich has been lobbying several right-wing factions to unite and run on a single ticket to increase the number of seats they can win and better drive nationalist agendas, such as annexing the West Bank.