ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Otzma Yehudit says it’s ending boycott of government after launch of Gaza operation

Cabinet officials rush to deny any connection between Ben Gvir’s threats and start of Operation Shield and Arrow; national security minister kept out of the loop on strikes

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, a member of the ruling coalition, said it was ending its boycott of government activity following the launch of the IDF’s Operation Shield and Arrow in Gaza.

Otzma Yehudit, led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, boycotted a cabinet meeting on Sunday and was threatening to boycott votes or even quit the government over its displeasure with the handling of several security issues.

In a statement Tuesday morning, the party wrote that “due to the acceptance of our position and the move from [a policy of] containment to attacking via targeted assassinations of Islamic Jihad officials, we will return to voting with the government.”

The party added that it hoped the new aggressive approach “will be maintained for the long term.”

The operation was launched early Tuesday morning when the IDF assassinated three senior members of the Islamic Jihad terror group, killing at least 13 people.  The bombings came days after Gazan terrorists led by Islamic Jihad fired 104 rockets at Israel in response to the death of an alleged senior member of the group who had been on hunger strike in Israeli prison. Several rockets struck the southern city of Sderot during the May 2 clash, injuring three workers and damaging homes and cars.

Several Hebrew media reports indicated that Ben Gvir was intentionally left out of the deliberations and decision-making over the launch of the operation over fears that he would leak information before it began.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as distrusting his police minister, repeatedly keeping him out of critical decision-making on security matters.

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

Otzma Yehudit MK Tzvika Fogel confirmed Tuesday that the national security minister was not part of the security decision.

“Ben Gvir was excluded from this operation, but I prefer to look on the positive side,” Fogel told the Ynet news site, adding that while the operation was obviously in the works for some time, he believes his party’s pressure had an effect.

“We’re happy there is a policy of attacking and not of containing,” Fogel added, noting that Ben Gvir and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are expected to meet Tuesday evening to finalize their detente.

But while the far-right party talked up its purported role in pushing for the broader Gaza operation, many in the coalition sought to negate any connection between the two.

Senior government officials were quoted by Ynet on Tuesday as denying that Ben Gvir’s boycott had any impact on the launch of Operation Shield and Arrow.

“The security moves of the State of Israel are in no way connected to the steps taken by any part in the coalition,” the officials reportedly stated, noting that such decisions are made “based only on security and diplomatic considerations.”

Likud MK Hanoch Milwidsky rejected any attempt to connect the launch of the operation with Ben Gvir’s boycott.

“It’s crazy and absurd to think anyone would time a military operation due to political pressure,” Milwidsky said in an interview on Radio 103 FM Tuesday morning. “It would be a terrible thing if that were the case, and it is not the case.”

Ben Gvir and other members of his party had pushed in recent weeks for the security establishment to adopt a harsher position against terror activity in the West Bank and Gaza. Last week the national security minister decried the “feeble” response to rocket fire from Gaza, and his party boycotted a cabinet meeting over the decision to return the bodies of several assailants to the Palestinian Authority.

Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen, who had pressed publicly for a harsh IDF reprisal to rocket fire last week, said Tuesday morning that he would close his “Sderot bureau,” which he opened to draw attention to the rocket-battered city.

“You have our full [backing] to act against and battle terror until quiet is returned,” he said.

Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen attends a right wing counterprotest against a demonstration by Arab Israeli students and left-wing activists against Israeli army operations in Jenin, at Tel Aviv University, January 30, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A handful of opposition MKs mocked Ben Gvir for being left out of the decision process, while others accused the government of being blackmailed into the operation.

MK Ofer Cassif of Hadash-Ta’al decried the “massacre in Gaza,” saying that it was aimed solely at “keeping the party of racist filth in the government” — a reference to Ben Gvir and his far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Palestinians gather near a damaged house after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 9, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Ra’am MK Waleed Taha was more explicit in his condemnation, tweeting that “Palestinian blood is the price for returning Itamar Ben Gvir and Almog [Cohen] to voting!”

Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy called Ben Gvir “an irresponsible clown” and said his appointment as a minister and then exclusion from decisions is “delusional conduct… if he is not fit [for the job], it is the prime minister’s responsibility to fire him and appoint someone else.”

Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Mossad, mocked Ben Gvir, tweeting: “Itamar, breathe. The decision was made in a deliberation you were not a part of.” Ben-Barak added that his party “backs the government in its fight against terror. Right now there is no left and right.”

Labor MK Efrat Rayten tweeted that “Ben Gvir was excluded from the decision to launch the operation,” adding that the message to him is: “You are harmful and unwanted.”

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