Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday panned a call by Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich for the implementation of religious law in Israel as “pure BS,” drawing a sharp response from the far-right politician who accused him of “belittling every believing Jew.”
The exchange marked the second time in recent months that the two have sparred over a call by Smotrich, from the United Right party, for the imposition of halacha, or Jewish law.
While Smotrich echoed his remarks from June, he also said that the prospect was not yet feasible because “there are other people who think differently and we need to get along with them.”
Netanyahu, who rejected Smotrich’s earlier proposed “halachic state,” has yet to comment in Hebrew on the transportation minister’s most recent remarks, but did so in English on Wednesday while speaking with a visiting delegation of Democrats from the US House of Representatives.
“A member our coalition, not from the Likud but another party, has said that he would like Israel to be a halachic state,” Netanyahu said.
“Well, that is pure and utter nonsense. It’s pure BS and nothing can attest to that more than the recently appointed justice minister from the Likud,” he added, referring to Amir Ohana, Israel’s first ever openly gay minister.
The appointment of Ohana came shortly after Smotrich, who was angling for the post of justice minister himself, initially voiced his support for a state ruled by Jewish law.
Netanyahu’s example of Ohana’s appointment was another dig at Smotrich who is openly hostile to the LGBT community, and who had been gunning for the Justice Ministry post.
Earlier Wednesday Smotrich knocked the IDF’s reported efforts to increase its integration of transgender soldiers, saying that “someone at the top of the IDF has heatstroke.”
Following Netanyahu’s speech to the Congress members, Smotrich hit back at the premier for criticizing him in his “polished and smooth English,” claiming his dream of a halachic state was shared by every religious Jew.
“Bibi didn’t only belittle me and my words, Bibi is belittling anyone who is a believing Jew,” he wrote on Facebook, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Smotrich asserted Netanyahu’s considerations in condemning him were purely political and aimed at attracting secular votes ahead of general elections in September.
“Bibi wants to appeal today to a secular audience in order to peel away another seat or two and so now its comfortable [for him] to do so at Smotrich’s expense to prove how enlightened and progressive he is,” the transportation minister said.
However, Smotrich argued,”within a day or two Bibi will chase after religious voters, spread notices in Shabbat pamphlets and sectoral newspaper and promise mountains and hills.”
“And therefore, with the help of God, the national religious and true and principled right will give its vote and trust to those who believe in truth and not to those who fake faith just before elections,” Smotrich said.
The back-and-forth between Netanyahu and a prominent member of his coalition come as the prime minister has reiterated his opposition to forming a secular unity government with the opposition Blue and White party after the September 17 vote.
In an opinion piece Wednesday in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily, Netanyahu said he would not pursue a unity government but would instead form a strong right-wing one, without mentioning specific partners.
Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman, whose rejection of Netanyahu’s offer to join a coalition after elections in April denied the premier a ruling majority and helped prompt a fresh vote, has said he will force the Likud and Blue and White parties to form a unity government if neither can cobble together enough seats without him.
Liberman has said such a government would not include the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, nor the leaders of the national-religious Jewish Home and National Union factions.
“I won’t violate the pact with the ultra-Orthodox,” Channel 12 news on Wednesday quoted Netanyahu saying, without citing a source.
“We will stick [with the ultra-Orthodox parties] through fire and water,” he reportedly added.
According to the network, Netanyahu said during the same recent conversations with associates that though he wants his next coalition to include the United Right, he worries its leaders Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett will recommend Blue and White head Benny Gantz as prime minister after the elections.
Netanyahu has previously feuded with Bennett and Shaked, who worked for him from 2006 to 2008 when he was opposition leader.
With the exception of the government he headed from 2013 to 2015, Shas and UTJ have been a part of all the coalitions Netanyahu has led.
Responding to the Channel 12 report, Netanyahu’s office denied he made the remarks but reiterated his commitment to establishing a right-wing government.
The network speculated that Netanyahu’s commitment to forming a government with the ultra-Orthodox was aimed at helping to keep him in office should he be charged in a series of corruption cases he is a suspect in.
The report came a day after police recommended Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads United Torah Judaism, be charged with fraud and breach of trust for using his office to illicitly provide assistance to an alleged serial sex abuser, as well as on a separate bribery charge for helping to prevent the closure of a food business that his own ministry had deemed unsanitary.
In addition to Litzman, police have recommended Shas leader and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri be indicted for fraud, breach of trust, obstructing court proceedings, money laundering, and tax offenses. He is suspected of diverting hundreds of thousands of shekels in state funds to NGOs run by members of his immediate family, as well as suspected tax fraud linked to the sale of apartments to his brother.
Netanyahu himself also has legal woes, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit saying he intends to indict the premier pending a hearing for fraud and breach of trust in a trio of graft cases, as well as bribery in one of them.
All three men deny any wrongdoing.