Netanyahu to meet right-religious bloc leaders as coalition negotiations kick off

Likud head will sit down with allies individually in Jerusalem, even before he is formally tasked with building new government; Deri reportedly offered first ministerial choice

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters at his party's headquarters in Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters at his party's headquarters in Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has invited the leaders of his right-wing and religious bloc for individual meetings on Sunday in Jerusalem, his office said Saturday, as talks on forming Israel’s next government begin even before Netanyahu has been formally asked by the president to do so.

President Isaac Herzog is expected to task Netanyahu with the job within a week, after consulting with all elected parties, as is the custom. The decisive win for Likud and its allied parties in Tuesday’s election makes him the clear choice.

Netanyahu’s bloc won 64 seats out of 120 in Tuesday’s elections. He is expected to form a government with ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as with the far-right alliance of Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit.

The Walla news site cited sources in Netanyahu’s bloc as saying the meetings were not “official negotiations” and were thought to be intended to establish baselines as the right-religious bloc parties are expected to fight over ministerial roles.

According to Channel 12 news, Shas leader Aryeh Deri was told by Netanyahu he would be given first choice of any ministerial role he wanted. The network said Netanyahu wants Shas to get the Finance Ministry, or if not to keep it for his Likud, as he does not want to give the portfolio to Religious Zionism party head Betzalel Smotrich.

The network said Netanyahu wants to offer Smotrich the Education Ministry or Justice Ministry. It did not cite sources. Shortly before the elections, Smotrich proposed a range of judicial reforms that could neuter the judiciary’s independence if fully implemented and potentially halt Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.

Shas party head Aryeh Deri with supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, in Jerusalem. November 1, 2022 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90 )

Smotrich has previously said he might also seek the Defense Ministry, though he has little military experience. But Channel 13 news reported Saturday that the position would likely go to Likud MK Yoav Gallant, a former top general in the Israeli military.

Fighting over ministerial roles has also been reported within the Likud itself.

Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich at the party’s campaign headquarters after election day, November 1, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

On Saturday, Walla reported that Likud MK David Amsalem is demanding the Justice Ministry for himself, while apparently warning Netanyahu of the consequences if he is not given it.

Amsalem, known for his brash style, reportedly told other party members at an event last week: “I will only be justice minister. If not, I’ll be on his case for four years.”

Amsalem denied the quote, Walla said, citing a statement issued on his behalf. “He doesn’t talk like that about the prime minister-elect and these things are probably the figment of the imagination of one person or another,” the statement said.

Still, sources close to Amsalem said that the Justice Ministry is the only ministerial role the MK is interested in.

MK David Amsalem speaks during a plenum session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Absent from the race to ministerial roles will be the Degel HaTorah faction within the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which said in a statement Saturday night that its rabbinic authorities had ordered lawmakers to uphold the party’s long-standing ideological decision to not take up minister positions so as to minimize their responsibility for actions taken by the secular state leadership.

Degel HaTorah MKs will nevertheless take up other senior roles, such as deputy minister and chairperson of Knesset committees.

Also Saturday, former transportation minister and Likud MK Miri Regev said the soon-to-open light rail system in the Tel Aviv area would not operate on Shabbat under the incoming government.

The outgoing minister Merav Michaeli had said last month that the rail would run on Saturdays.

Outgoing Labor MK Emilie Moatti, meanwhile, said party leader Michaeli made a “big mistake” by not merging with the left-wing Meretz party ahead of the election.

“It was a very big mistake by Merav Michaeli not to merge with Meretz and not to take [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid’s offer,” Moatti, who is placed sixth on the Labor list, told Channel 12.

Moatti took responsibility herself, saying she “could have kicked up a fuss” over the issue and didn’t, making her culpable as well.

Labor won just four seats in last week’s election, while Meretz did not cross the 3.25% electoral threshold, winning 3.16% of the national vote. It’s failure smoothed Netanyahu’s path to a decisive majority.

Michaeli has been under intense left-wing criticism in recent days for a decision many view as a failed gamble, and is facing a growing chorus of voices calling on her to resign.

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