'We will decide who will be in the next government'

Netanyahu: ‘Won’t bow my head’ to US lawmakers’ warning against Ben Gvir partnership

In Haredi radio station interview, opposition leader pledges to scrap tax hikes on disposable plasticware and sweetened drinks, both hot-button issues for ultra-Orthodox community

Head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu attends Kikar HaShabbat conference at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem Hotel, September 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu attends Kikar HaShabbat conference at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem Hotel, September 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that he would not “bow [his] head” to United States lawmakers who have warned Jerusalem against allowing far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir to make further political gains after the upcoming election.

“We are a democracy and we will decide who will be in the next government,” Netanyahu told Haredi radio station Kol Barama. “I know how to stand up for us. My ability is to not bow my head, and to say ‘no’ when necessary.”

At least two pro-Israel Democrats in the US Congress have cautioned Israel against further legitimizing Ben Gvir.

Sen. Robert Menendez issued a warning regarding Ben Gvir during a closed meeting with Netanyahu last month.

“I said to Menendez: ‘Are you talking to me about [Ben Gvir] who believes in the State of Israel and supports IDF soldiers? I haven’t heard a word about [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz and [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid partnering with [Ra’am leader] Mansour Abbas and the Muslim Brotherhood, who deny Israel as a Jewish state and go to the mourning tents of murderers of Jews,'” Netanyahu said Tuesday.

Netanyahu is widely reported to have made Ra’am generous offers while wooing the party as he sought support for forming a government after the March 2021 elections.

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir gestures to a Palestinian protester during a news conference at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City, June 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Ben Gvir can “certainly” be a minister if the former premier forms a government after the upcoming elections, and on Monday said firmly that Ben Gvir would be a minister in his coalition, reversing his previously stated opposition to having the far-right politician in his cabinet.

In a bid to improve his chances of returning to power before the previous election, the Likud leader orchestrated a merger deal that ensured the entry of Ben Gvir’s extremist Otzma Yehudit into the Knesset. He worked to encourage a similar agreement ahead of the upcoming November 1 election.

Far-right MK Ben Gvir is No. 2 on the Religious Zionism slate, which is projected to win between 12 and 14 seats, positioning himself to receive a senior cabinet posting if Netanyahu manages to form the kind of hard-right, religious coalition on which he has been campaigning.

Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in the 1980s in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has also been convicted on terror charges, though he insists he has moderated in recent years and does not hold the same beliefs as the Kach founder.

Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading: “Expel the Arab enemy.”

Until it began to harm him politically, he kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein on a wall of his Hebron home. Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Recently, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

MK Itamar Ben Gvir shouts during a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting, June 26, 2022. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

In the interview, Netanyahu also called on the Haredi public to go out and vote, warning against apathy.

“There is complacency. The world of Torah is in danger. I can’t believe that people are considering staying at home,” he said.

In a further bid to attract ultra-Orthodox voters, Netanyahu said his potential government would scrap the current government’s tax increases on disposable plates and cutlery, as well as on sweetened drinks.

“We will cancel all of [Finance Minister Avigdor] Liberman’s decrees/ People go to the supermarket and can’t make ends meet. The taxation on disposable plates and sweet drinks — what is that? We will unequivocally cancel it.”

In January, the Knesset gave final approval to a decree hiking taxes on sweetened beverages.

Health Ministry figures point to sweetened drinks as accounting for 30-40 percent of Israelis’ consumption of added sugar that doesn’t exist naturally in foods. The decree’s authors said this was a key contributor to obesity in Israel, since research shows many Israeli children drink sweetened beverages every day, placing the country at a worryingly high place in worldwide rankings of sugar consumption.

The government also last year introduced a new tax on disposable plasticware, which Haredi parties said targeted their constituents — a sector of society that relies heavily on single-use plastics.

Israelis spend NIS 2 billion ($560 million) annually on plastic tableware, with the amount used per person nearly five times that of EU residents, the Environmental Protection ministry said at the time.

Disposable plastic tableware for sale in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, October 27, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to a 2019 World Wildlife Fund for Nature report, Tel Aviv had the third-highest amount of plastic pollution on its coastline among cities in 22 Mediterranean countries, with an average of 21 kilograms (46 pounds) of plastic debris per kilometer of coastline.

Plastics that end up in the seas and ocean are an increasingly common problem, killing maritime wildlife, contaminating fish and seafood entering the food chain, and leading to hundreds of millions of dollars of loss in tourism and maritime-related industries.

On Monday, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said he believes the Haredi parties will reconsider their years’-long alliance with Likud. The comments came hours after United Torah Judaism chief Yitzhak Goldknopf, slated to enter Knesset after the election, said his party remains committed to a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu.

Most polls, while notoriously unreliable, show Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc gaining around 60 seats — one short of a majority — with Lapid’s center-left coalition holding around 56, possibly extending a political deadlock that has led to five national elections since 2019.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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