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Analysis'He's the only one who brought in votes from the other bloc'

Netanyahu may have no choice but to give Ben Gvir the Public Security Ministry

Incoming PM is also facing Smotrich’s demand for the Finance Ministry; meanwhile, Likud MKs, particularly Israel Katz, see their negotiating power for top jobs reduced

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu (L), in Jerusalem on September 11, 2022 and Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben Gvir (R), in Jerusalem on July 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu (L), in Jerusalem on September 11, 2022 and Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben Gvir (R), in Jerusalem on July 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

One of the biggest disappointments for Likud lawmakers is the size of Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in last week’s elections.

The 64 seats won by the Likud-led bloc obliterated the leverage of Netanyahu’s own MKs, and at the same time ensured that he cannot afford to risk alienating his presumptive coalition partners.

The decision by leaders of the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit — Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, respectively — to negotiate as a united bloc means Netanyahu will probably have no choice to give them the two portfolios they’re gunning for: the Treasury to Smotrich and the Public Security Ministry to Ben Gvir.

Netanyahu’s associates claim he is not afraid to entrust the sensitive public security portfolio, which includes oversight of the police, to the extremist Ben Gvir, who has been convicted on multiple counts over the years.

Over the past few months, Netanyahu’s associates held many conversations with Ben Gvir. They claim they found him to be pragmatic, and agreed that he would get the funding he wants for the fight against crime but would not endanger the government on sensitive issues such as the Temple Mount.

It’s hard to know if Ben Gvir will live up to such an assessment, but Netanyahu’s office believes that the extremist lawmaker will become less incendiary if he is able to take action to bolster citizens’ sense of security.

Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu (center) speaks with Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich (second from left) during informal coalition talks in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

Ben Gvir is set to meet with Netanyahu on Monday, the presumptive prime minister-to-be no longer needing to avoid him, as he did at an event at Kfar Chabad just three weeks ago.

“Ben Gvir was the hit of these elections,” said one insider. “He is the only one in our [right-religious] bloc who brought in votes from the other bloc.

“Ben Gvir will have to prove his seriousness and efficiency, and improve public security. Ahead of the next elections, after he has been tested by his role in the ministry, it will not be the same Ben Gvir who was also greeted with enthusiasm in north Tel Aviv,” the insider said, apparently referring to the far-right leader’s meeting with a group of teenage Scouts in the liberal bastion.

The position will have an effect upon him, “for better or for worse,” the insider said.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir arrives to speak to supporters as the results of the elections are announced, at the party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud lawmakers’ power eroded

While Netanyahu’s far-right flank can be secure in its leverage, members of his Likud party who spoke after the primaries in August about their ability to get any portfolio they want should the bloc win 61 seats are now eating their words.

For them, this time around, senior portfolios in a Netanyahu government will be won through flattery, not muscle-flexing.

The stormy primaries held by Likud will have a direct impact on the formation of the government, and the coming week will be particularly tense.

The presumptive prime minister demands absolute loyalty, and senior Likud MK Israel Katz may have seen his chances of getting a senior portfolio plummet with the Sunday airing of a recording of him claiming he had formed a “faction” of loyalists within the party that will force Netanyahu to name him finance minister, a job he has previously held and which he publicly said he has requested from Netanyahu.

All of the partners in this self-declared “faction” — David Bitan, David Amsalem, Nissim Vaturi and Hanoch Milvitzky — were quick to disavow it after the Katz comments were leaked.

R-L: Likud’s MK Israel Katz, MK David Amsalem, MK David Bitan tour the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on October 20, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Over the weekend, as rumors spread of a “faction within a faction” and that the recordings were about to be broadcast, members of Netanyahu’s office called Katz and asked him to disavow it.

But he refused, claiming that he would not engage in “nonsense.” Now that the recordings have aired, Netanyahu associates say Katz’s prospects of securing a senior cabinet appointment appear to have dimmed.

Netanyahu did not seek to undermine Katz during the primaries, but he did promote his own favored candidates, and thus pushed others down the list. Bitan, an associate of Katz, claims that Netanyahu tried to push him completely off the slate. Netanyahu denies it.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to then-Foreign Minister Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

In a meeting Katz had with Netanyahu about a month ago, he asked for the finance portfolio. Katz noted the successes of the last Netanyahu government in which he served as finance minister, and reiterated the loyalty he has shown to the prime minister all along. While agreeing with Katz, Netanyahu told him that he couldn’t commit to giving him the ministry before the elections.

In the recordings released Sunday, Katz was heard saying that “Netanyahu gives a portfolio to whomever he wants or whomever he owes.”

Netanyahu’s great achievement in the elections frees him from any commitment to Likud, and everything is now entirely up to his own goodwill.

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