Otzma Yehudit makes fresh threats to quit government as row with Netanyahu escalates

Report says PM looking for ways to mollify his far-right partners, could advance a stalled bill that would implement death penalty for Palestinian terrorists

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The far-right Otzma Yehudit party issued fresh threats to quit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition on Friday as a row over their influence on policy intensified.

“We have no reason to stay in this government if we can’t influence its policy,” party MK Zvika Fogel, the chairman of the Knesset’s National Security Committee, said in an interview on Channel 12.

The dispute erupted earlier this week when National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir clashed with Netanyahu, as the far-right party leader fumed over his exclusion from security deliberations on fighting between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups.

On Wednesday, Otzma Yehudit announced it would skip votes at the Knesset throughout the day, citing the government’s “feeble” response to the rocket fire from Gaza. The ruling Likud party responded by telling Ben Gvir he could leave the government if he did not like the way Netanyahu runs it.

The rift deepened Friday when Ben Gvir responded vociferously after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant authorized the return of the bodies of three Palestinian gunmen who were killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank in March.

Ben Gvir slammed the decision to return the bodies on Friday, calling it “a serious mistake that will cost us dearly.”

“This government is a right-wing government and the public did not give us a mandate to return the bodies of terrorists or to avoid bombing Gaza,” Ben Gvir said in a statement.

“Otzma Yehudit will continue to be absent from votes [in the Knesset] until the Israeli government changes direction and begins to uphold the policy for which it was elected,” Ben Gvir’s Friday statement continued.

In his later interview, Fogel took the threats a step further, saying the party, with its 6 MKs, would quit the coalition, effectively bringing down the 64-member alliance.

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel leads the Knesset’s National Security Committee meeting in Jerusalem, February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We will go all the way, I have repeatedly said this,” Fogel warned. “We did not come here to be the 61st or 64th vote. We came to enable personal security for the citizens of Israel, sovereignty and national honor.”

“In recent days we have returned the bodies of terrorists without getting back our captives, we have not managed to do anything,” Fogel said.

The dust-up was the latest in a series of fissures to emerge in Netanyahu’s hardline right-religious government, which has faced mounting internal pressure over its currently shelved plans to overhaul the judiciary, along with the skyrocketing cost of living, burgeoning violent crime and deepening conflict with the Palestinians.

The move came as Ben Gvir also faces increased pressure over rising terror attacks and a sharp jump in murders since he came into office in December after running on a platform of keeping citizens safer.

Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported Friday that Netanyahu was looking for a way to end the rift with Ben Gvir and could bring the stalled bill on the death penalty for Palestinian terrorists to a security cabinet debate.

The bill passed a preliminary reading in early March but has since been stalled.

The Kan report said that a primary reason was that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara opposed the bill because the security ramification had not been discussed by the security cabinet, among other concerns.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara attends a conference of the Israeli chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) in Tel Aviv, July 5, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The unsourced report said Netanyahu believed that the security cabinet debate would satisfy Ben Gvir, who campaigned on the issue while causing the least amount of political or diplomatic damage.

If approved by the security cabinet the bill could then advance to the Knesset for three further readings before becoming law.

The far-right party has a list of demands, including assassinating terror leaders and demolishing illegally built apartment buildings in East Jerusalem, that Netanyahu has so far resisted amid fears they could spark a regional confrontation.

However, he did recently agree to back the formation of a National Guard in exchange for the Otzma Yehudit chief agreeing to back a pause on the judicial overhaul.

The legislation stipulates that courts will be able to impose the death penalty on those who have committed a nationalistically motivated murder of a citizen of Israel. However, it would not apply to an Israeli who killed a Palestinian.

The initiative has long been weighed by the Israeli right but has consistently faced opposition from the security establishment, arguing that it would not deter future terror attacks, and the legal establishment, which cites legal challenges and warns it could harm Israel in international forums.

Israel’s penal code includes capital punishment but only for exceedingly rare cases — Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann was one of only two people executed by the state in 75 years.

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