Agreement reportedly may be signed as early as Wednesday

Netanyahu, Smotrich said to inch closer to finalizing deal to form government

Reports say Religious Zionism leader set to head Finance Ministry in rotation with Deri, as well as hold immigration and settlement portfolios and chair key Knesset committee

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich at the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich at the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After their third marathon meeting in 24 hours, the Likud and Religious Zionism parties are said to have made progress in the distribution of portfolios in the expected coalition, with Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich and Shas leader Aryeh Deri reportedly set to rotate as finance minister.

Marking the uptick in progress, Army Radio and Channel 12 news said Likud and Religious Zionism may sign a coalition deal as early as Wednesday.

During their Tuesday night meeting, Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly agreed to give Smotrich the first stint at the head of the Treasury, and in the second half of the government’s term, Religious Zionism would receive the interior ministry and either the transportation or education ministry, the reports said.

In addition, Religious Zionism will hold the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and the to-be-resurrected portfolio to head the Settlements Ministry, as well as the chairmanship of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, according to Channel 12 and Ynet news site reports.

If the discussed deal is finalized, such a role allocation will help Religious Zionism implement its far-right agenda to expand Israeli settlement in the West Bank and impose political control over the judicial system.

The Likud party put out a statement on behalf of the two sides, saying the full distribution of portfolios would only be announced with the signing of a deal, and denied the reports’ accuracy. A spokesperson for Shas referred to Deri’s comments on Monday that “if we hadn’t made compromises in the last two weeks we wouldn’t have moved forward [with coalition negotiations].”

Religious Zionism has been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side as he works to form Israel’s most hardline government yet, although significant progress was made on Tuesday, when Smotrich acceded to Likud’s request to begin the process to quickly swap the Knesset speaker.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri arrives to cast his vote in the elections in Jerusalem, on November 1, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under the reported deal, Smotrich will serve as finance minister in a rotation with Deri, who will start as interior and health minister before taking over the Treasury at an unspecified point in 2025.

Due to the vagueness of the law, the incoming government has between four and five years to govern. The relevant law dictates that, barring a snap election, the next election will be in the Hebrew month of Heshvan, four years after the most recent election. However, given that the November 1 election was held during Heshvan, the law must be interpreted to decide whether the 25th Knesset has just under four years to govern or just under five. The Knesset’s legal adviser has referred the issue to the next election’s Central Elections Committee, which has yet to be formed.

After leaving the Finance Ministry, Smotrich will then pick up the interior and settlement ministries, the latter of which he would take over from party member MK Orit Strock, who will in turn move to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

MK Orit Strock speaks during a visit of Religious Zionism party members in Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on October 26, 2022 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Religious Zionism has come out in favor of tightening the Law of Return, which enables Jews, their children, and their grandchildren to easily obtain Israeli citizenship. The party joins other far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties is pushing to close the so-called “grandchildren clause” of the law, as well as limit recognized conversion to Orthodox-only. However, the Kan public broadcaster said that Likud may push back against amending the law.

Completing the ministry musical chairs, another member of Religious Zionism, possibly MK Ofir Sofer, is expected to start in the Immigration and Absorption ministry until 2025, when he would swap for one of portfolios currently allocated to Likud, possibly transportation or education.

Lawmaker and judicial reform advocate Religous Zionism MK Simcha Rothman is said to be slated to chair the Knesset’s powerful Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee.

Among the proposals pushed by Rothman is the contentious override clause and putting the appointment of Supreme Court justices more firmly into political control. Rothman and the Religious Zionism party have also advocated canceling the crime of “fraud and breach of trust,” which forms the basis of three of Netanyahu’s four ongoing corruption cases. If canceled, Netanyahu’s charges would be wiped, according to the law.

Chairman of the Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and his party member MK Simcha Rothman present the “Law and Justice” program during a press conference in Kfar Maccabiah in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The job division is an additional step on Religious Zionism’s path to signing a coalition deal with Likud, after a rocky start to negotiations that included mutual public recriminations and long stretches of disconnect between the two parties.

Smotrich, who lacks meaningful military experience and advocates annexing the West Bank, had pushed for the Defense Ministry, which Netanyahu told him he could not have, reportedly at least in part due to US objections.

While both Smotrich and Deri have their eye on the Finance Ministry, the Shas leader is currently serving a suspended sentence for tax offenses and in order to become a cabinet minister, would require an expected rush bill to clarify a vague law.

Meanwhile, Smotrich has pushed to cleave off key settlement-related institutions — such as the government’s civil authority in the West Bank’s Area C — and wants them to be placed under his jurisdiction in the Finance Ministry.

Details on key policy agreements between Netanyahu and Smotrich, which will form the basis of a coalition agreement, have yet to be officially disclosed.

However, Likud last week said that it had not agreed to excise unspecific offices and transfer their authority.

Likud is still working on coming to an agreement with Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as full coalition agreements with Otzma Yehudit and Noam, with whom they have agreed upon roles.

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