Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday pushed back against comments by his hardline political ally and aspiring justice minister Bezalel Smotrich, who had called for the Israeli justice system to adhere to Jewish religious law.
“The State of Israel will not be a halacha [Jewish religious law] state,” Netanyahu tweeted, amid an uproar over Smotrich’s remarks.
Hours earlier, Smotrich, a Union of Right-Wing Parties MK, told Kan public radio that the country should aspire to run itself as “in the days of King David.”
The national religious lawmaker was defending comments he made the previous night at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem in which he demanded his party be given the posts of education minister and justice minister, which were vacated after Netanyahu fired Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked on Sunday.
“We want the justice portfolio because we want to restore the Torah justice system,” Smotrich said.
He told Kan that his intention was a gradual, long-term transition toward a religious state.
“When we talk about Torah laws there are many things. I think the Torah’s monetary laws are much better [than ours]. We need to grant the rabbinical courts a higher status,” he said.
Asked whether he was calling for a “halacha state,” Smotrich retorted: “You’re throwing a scary expression into the air. Torah laws are far superior to the ‘halacha state’ founded here by Aharon Barak.” He was referring to the controversial former Supreme Court chief who is most closely identified with Israeli justice system’s “activist” streak, long a target of right-wing ire.
Yair Lapid, co-leader of the centrist Blue and White party, responded to Smotrich on Twitter. “No, no, we won’t let this pass. There won’t be a state here ruled by halacha,” he said Monday, using the Hebrew term for Jewish religious law.
Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg said the “mask has been removed” from Smotrich’s “insane vision,” which she likened to “a theocracy in the vein of [TV series] ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.'”
Zandberg called for Smotrich to be disqualified from running in the elections, in accordance with a law stipulating that only candidates who don’t reject Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state may run.
Separately on Monday, a Netanyahu spokesman announced that the premier will not appoint new justice and education ministers until next week, walking back a spokesperson’s statement Sunday that the new appointments would be decided within two days and stressing that Netanyahu “has no intention of holding one of the vacated portfolios himself.”
But, starting Tuesday morning, Netanyahu will be acting education and justice minister during a consultation period with Likud lawmakers and other political allies. For the prime minister to hold the latter portfolio could be controversial as he faces corruption indictments, pending a hearing, in three cases against him.
MKs Rafi Peretz and Smotrich from the Union of Right-Wing Parties have urged Netanyahu to appoint them as education and justice ministers, respectively, in place of Bennett and Shaked. The URWP was one of the parties that sought to form a coalition with Netanyahu after his Likud party won the most votes in the April elections and Smotrich has offered to champion legislation granting Netanyahu immunity from prosecution.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Monday condemned Smotrich’s comments.
“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.”
Liberman had refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition last week over the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill, while stressing that his secular right-wing party opposes a “halachic state.” The Knesset disbanded last Wednesday and set new elections for September, sending Israelis to the polls for the second time in five months.