Netanyahu claims ties with Ben Gvir fine, denies security meeting snub

Prime minister says Iran, not areas in Ben Gvir’s purview, were dealt with during high-level gathering as reports swirl that minister an unwelcome presence

Illustrative: Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu with head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/File)
Illustrative: Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu with head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to downplay his exclusion of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir from a high-level meeting on security matters Sunday, claiming the subject matter fell outside Ben Gvir’s purview and that the relationship between the two is in good order.

In a statement to reporters, the Prime Minister’s Office said the classified Sunday afternoon meeting was “focused on Iran and did not deal with any internal security issues.”

As national security minister, Ben Gvir’s remit mainly deals with managing the police and handling security challenges inside sovereign Israel.

Netanyahu’s office described the meeting as “a routine discussion… on various areas around Israel.

The meeting was attended by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet security service chief Ronen Bar, and top generals from the army’s senior staff.

Media reports following the meeting indicated that Netanyahu was purposefully leaving out Ben Gvir, who heads the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, over his history of problematic proposals.

Netanyahu’s office denied any such schism between the coalition allies, claiming the two would “continue cooperating fully.”

“Any attempt to create friction between the prime minister and the national security minister and to purportedly attribute it to sources close to the prime minister are completely false — and are done purposefully,” said the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Despite the claimed focus on Iran, some reports indicated that the meeting did deal with areas closer to home. According to an unsourced report on Channel 12 news, the meeting also tackled the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, where an increase of Jewish visitors over the Sukkot holiday is seen as likely to raise tensions, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas outside of the Ben Gvir’s purview but where he has reportedly attempted to influence policy.

Police escort Jewish visitors marking the holiday of Passover at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, April 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

According to Haaretz, diplomatic sources said ahead of the meeting that it would deal with the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Iran.

An earlier statement from Netanyahu’s office said the meeting had dealt with “security challenges in all arenas, with an emphasis on Iran.”

At least some close to Ben Gvir appeared to view his absence from the meeting as a snub.

“If I were prime minister, I wouldn’t do this,” Otzma Yehudit MK Tzvika Fogel told the Kan public broadcaster. “When you snub the national security minister, you cause damage, and it’s a shame Netanyahu did so.”

During the meeting, Ben Gvir tweeted a headline referring to increased Jewish visits on the Temple Mount, a potentially explosive issue, commenting, “This is what governance looks like!”

Reports have repeatedly swirled that Ben Gvir, accused by critics of being a firebrand populist, has been an unwelcome presence at high-level meetings due to his disruptive demands, as well as fears that he will leak classified information to the media.

At a meeting of the powerful security cabinet last month, Ben Gvir pestered army officials with questions and complaints about the transfer of US arms to the Palestinian Authority and other measures, to the point that Gallant told the officers to ignore him, Channel 13 news reported.

According to the report, Netanyahu ordered the officers to respond to Ben Gvir, saying that any minister in the meeting was entitled to answers on security matters. Ties between the pair remain strained-to-nonexistent, the unsourced report said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi give an outstanding officer an award during a ceremony, at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, September 3, 2023. (Shahar Yorman/Defense Ministry

An unnamed source close to Netanyahu earlier said Ben Gvir has a tendency to propose measures at security meetings that would complicate matters for Israel on the global stage.

“He comes to meetings and constantly strives for targeted killings, a ban on bringing in workers from the Gaza Strip and strange closures on all kinds of villages and cities in the West Bank,” the source said. “He does not understand that with such a policy the prime minister could not fly anywhere, and certainly not receive receptions around the world.”

An anonymous Likud source said “security meetings in which Itamar Ben Gvir is present look like a children’s game.”

According to the Ynet news site, a number of IDF operations have been kept hidden from Ben Gvir amid fears he would leak details ahead of them being carried out.

According to Haaretz, Netanyahu prefers to make decisions regarding defense matters based on meetings with professionals rather than fellow ministers, fearing they will leak information. Nonetheless, Ben Gvir has been invited when the matters being discussed involve police.

There has been a recent increase in security meetings as Israel goes through the High Holiday period, which has included, among other measures, a major police operation to deploy thousands of officers at key locations, primarily in Jerusalem to secure events during the month-long period.

Ben Gvir has also clashed with Netanyahu over the former’s demands to limit visitation rights to Palestinian security ministers, despite warnings from top security officials against such a move.

Aside from the internal security concerns, the meeting Sunday came amid US efforts to reach an agreement for normalization with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have made it clear that any such deal would require significant measures toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, which the hardline Ben Gvir rejects.

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