ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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AG opts not to attend meeting, amid tensions with coalition

Netanyahu says he’ll revert to ‘openly’ opposing Iran deal, names security cabinet

At 1st full cabinet meeting, ministers approve key security cabinet, largely comprising Likud leaders along with Ben Gvir, Smotrich; PM promises to fight crime, cut cost of living

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Tzahi Braverman (2nd L) National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (2R) and Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman (R) at a cabinet meeting on January 3, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Tzahi Braverman (2nd L) National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (2R) and Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman (R) at a cabinet meeting on January 3, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that he would change Israel’s strategy toward countering Iranian nuclear ambitions, promising to bring the fight back to the court of public opinion.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that it was still a “possibility” that Western powers would resuscitate efforts to sign a nuclear deal with Iran and that he would apply public pressure to prevent it.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first with official business since the government was sworn in on Thursday.

“We will work openly, from a position of strength, in the international arena against a return to the nuclear agreement,” Netanyahu said. “Not only in talks with leaders behind closed doors but strongly and openly in the sphere of global opinion, which is now aware of the true dangers posed by Iran – the Iranian regime that is killing innocent citizens in and outside Iran.”

The most recently discussed nuclear agreement with Iran was panned as a “bad deal” by Israel’s previous government and security establishment, because it would release billions of dollars to Tehran without guaranteeing a real curb to its nuclear ambitions.

Israel has long vowed it will act to ensure Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.

Negotiations now look to be all but abandoned following fresh steep demands by Tehran and the regime’s deadly crackdown on months-long protests for greater freedoms.

Video surfaced last month in which US President Joe Biden said the multilateral agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program was “dead,” but that he would not announce this publicly.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett said at the time that Biden’s remarks represented a “tremendous achievement” for the outgoing Israeli government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to working to thwart a return to the nuclear deal, Netanyahu said he would continue Israel’s operations against Iran in Syria.

“We will work more vigorously to prevent Iranian-military entrenchment in Syria and elsewhere,” he said. Israel is alleged to have most recently struck targets in Damascus’s airport on Sunday.

Netanyahu and his 31-member cabinet also officially approved the formation of the 11-member security cabinet, a high-level subset of government ministers who oversee and approve sensitive security and military matters.

In addition to Netanyahu as the forum’s chair, the Likud-heavy panel consists of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas), National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit), Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism), Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Energy Minister Yisrael Katz, and Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet director.

Aside from Smotrich, Ben Gvir and Deri, all other ministers on the panel are members of Netanyahu’s Likud party or, in the case of non-political appointee Dermer, closely aligned with the premier. This means that though Smotrich and Ben Gvir will have a voice in high-level decision-making, Netanyahu will maintain his role as final arbiter via the installment of lawmakers who are likely to follow his lead.

Even with the influence of Smotrich and Ben Gvir watered down, the security cabinet is expected to be among the most hawkish the country has ever known, reflecting the radical-right makeup of the new government.

At the meeting, Netanyahu charged that divisions in the previous, big-tent government had caused dysfunction in its handling of governance and economic issues, and led to a failure to promote peace.

While the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government did not further expand the Abraham Accords, it continued to invest in those relationships and signed a maritime border deal with Lebanon, a country with which Israel remains in a state of war.

The border wall that runs between Israel and Lebanon with the Mediterranean Sea in the distance, in Rosh Hanikra, Israel, on October 14, 2022. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Regarding governance and personal security, Netanyahu said his government had received a “clear mandate from the public” to improve both.

“We will take strong action against lawbreakers wherever they are, in order to restore personal security to all citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike,” Netanyahu told his assembled ministers.

On Tuesday morning, Ben Gvir visited Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount, leading to intense international condemnation. The Otzma Yehudit leader made his way to the cabinet meeting soon after his visit.

Netanyahu made no mention of the visit in his public statement at the start of the cabinet meeting. Hebrew-language media reports had indicated Monday night that the premier and national security minister had agreed that the latter would hold off on visiting the site for the time being. However, Likud insisted this was not the case.

Ben Gvir, who serves as national security minister — a repackaged and expanded police ministry — developed a reputation as a provocateur, drawing a handgun and staging a temporary office in Jerusalem’s tense Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood among other stunts in his Knesset tenure. He was convicted in the past for incitement to racism and supporting a Jewish terror group.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

Under the governance headline, Netanyahu also promised that his government would work to “ensure the right balance between the authorities,” in an apparent nod to his party’s controversial plans for broad judicial reform.

Netanyahu also said he’d held his first discussion on the economy with Finance Minister Smotrich and a Netanyahu economic adviser, Avi Simhon, on Monday evening, to discuss the rising cost of living.

Netanyahu said they discussed “the immediate emergency measures that we will take in this regard in the coming days.”

“We are united in the fight against the cost-of-living [crisis],” he said.

On Monday, the Bank of Israel further raised the interest rate to 3.75%, the highest it’s been since 2008. Consumers were also hit with a rash of price hikes on January 1, including an 8.3 percent rise in the cost of electricity.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara did not attend Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. She was also not invited to the cabinet’s first festive meeting on Thursday after it was approved by the Knesset.

A Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel that Baharav-Miara does not generally attend the meetings unless there is a special need for her and that her absence was “not unusual,” although a source in Lapid’s office said she generally did attend during his short tenure.

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara speaks during a conference at the University of Haifa, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Netanyahu met Baharav-Miara on Sunday against a backdrop of strained relations, with the prime minister’s incoming government vowing to enact far-reaching judicial reforms — among them planned changes to significantly weaken her position.

During the election campaign, several Likud MKs called on Netanyahu to fire Baharav-Miara should he become prime minister again, while the attorney general has publicly criticized the legislative plans of the new government, particularly its plans for the High Court.

Baharav-Miara is additionally expected to oppose the appointment of Deri as a minister in the new government due to his recent criminal conviction, and will reportedly submit a legal opinion saying the nomination is unreasonable for someone who has been convicted three times for corruption in the past, including just last year.

Times of Israel staff and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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