Smotrich said to turn down Foreign Ministry, as Netanyahu gov’t talks still stalled

PM-designate’s goal of new coalition by Wednesday seems unlikely, as Religious Zionism leader unyielding on Defense job, Ben Gvir wants transport or education as well as police

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich as party chiefs pose for a group photograph during the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich as party chiefs pose for a group photograph during the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Prospects of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu clinching a government by next week appeared to dim Friday, amid ongoing disagreements with far-right allies over the division of ministerial roles.

Citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter, the Haaretz daily reported disputes remain with Religious Zionism chair Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir.

The report said Smotrich is refusing to back down from his demand for either the Treasury or the Defense Ministry portfolio, the latter of which Netanyahu is believed to not want to give him amid reports of US objections, and the former of which his senior partner Aryeh Deri of Shas has demanded for himself.

According to an unsourced Channel 12 report, Likud has offered a compromise whereby Smotrich would be appointed finance minister but some of his authorities would be transferred to Deri in the Interior Ministry, possibly the Budgets Department and Companies Authority.

It was unclear if Smotrich or Deri would accept such a deal.

Unidentified sources in the right-wing bloc told media Friday that Smotrich had also been offered the foreign affairs portfolio but refused.

Meanwhile, Ben Gvir, who ran with Smotrich on the joint Religious Zionism slate that won 14 seats together, is also at odds with Likud over a demand that Otzma Yehudit receive either the education or transportation portfolio as its second most senior role, Haaretz reported.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir arrive for the swearing-in ceremony for the new the Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Ben Gvir is expected to receive the Public Security Ministry, in charge of police, as he has demanded. The posting has worried Israel’s opposition as well as international observers in light of the far-right lawmaker’s incendiary background, which includes convictions for supporting a terror group and incitement to racism.

Channel 13 reported Thursday night that if no agreement can be reached by Wednesday, Likud has considered the possibility of swearing in a minority government of 57 MKs in the 120-seat Knesset, without Smotrich’s faction, assuming the latter would not actively vote against it but abstain.

However, the unsourced report said the Religious Zionism head has warned he would vote against the proposed new coalition, immediately thwarting it. Ben Gvir has also promised to only join a government alongside Smotrich.

On Friday, Ben Gvir publicly urged Netanyahu to accept Smotrich’s demands and called on all parties to find a solution to disputes.

“Smotrich’s demand for the defense portfolio is a legitimate demand that will allow the realization of full right-wing policies, the establishment of new settlements in Judea and Samaria, the approval of thousands of apartment units, ending [Palestinian] construction in Area C, and stopping the evacuation of [outposts],” Otzma Yehudit said in a statement, listing off its policy wishlist.

Likud also faces problems with Haredi party United Torah Judaism, Channel 12 reported.

The two parties are said to have agreed that UTJ chair Yitzhak Goldknopf will be appointed housing and construction minister, while MK Moshe Gafni will head the Knesset’s Finance Committee. But the network said several of UTJ’s demands on legislation have so far gone unanswered — including scholarships for Yeshiva students and legislation absolving Haredi men of the military draft.

On Thursday, the Likud party announced that Ben Gvir and Netanyahu had agreed to several legislative demands made by Otzma Yehudit.

Limor Son Har-Melech looks out at the Homesh hilltop, from her Shavei Shomron home, May 26, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Those bills include retroactively legalizing dozens of illegal West Bank outposts, sometimes known as within 60 days of the government being sworn in, changing the 2005 Disengagement Law in a way that would allow the legalization of the controversial Homesh outpost and yeshiva in the West Bank, and legislating a minimum sentence for agricultural crimes.

Likud said the sides also agreed to accelerate the expansion of Route 60 — the main north-south highway through the West Bank — the building of bypass roads, and a broadening of an existing law that prevents criminal charges from being brought against someone using force to protect their home to also apply to anyone defending an IDF army base.

Another controversial policy being pushed by Netanyahu’s allies is a measure that would allow a majority of Knesset members to overturn certain decisions by the High Court of Justice, drastically curbing judicial oversight.

Some of Netanyahu’s partners have also called for legislation that would help end his ongoing trial on corruption charges.

Netanyahu officially received a mandate to form a government on Sunday, giving him 28 days to assemble a majority coalition. If he needs more time, he could seek a 14-day extension from President Isaac Herzog.

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