The senior leadership of the Union of Right-Wing Parties quarreled Wednesday night over who was more deserving of a senior post in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet after the premier appointed a Likud loyalist as justice minister, filling one of the two positions that the national religious party had hoped would be reserved for it.
Competing remarks attributed to officials in the Jewish Home and National Union — two of the three parties that make up the URWP amalgam — clashed over who was more worthy of serving as education minister: Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz or National Union head Bezalel Smotrich.
“Rabbi Peretz will receive the education portfolio as he had demanded throughout the coalition negotiations. It is unclear to us why Smotrich is attacking Netanyahu instead of drawing conclusions,” one statement, attributed to a “Jewish Home official,” said.
The statement was alluding to Smotrich’s criticism of Netanyahu after the latter appointed Likud MK Amir Ohana justice minister earlier Wednesday evening.
In response, comments attributed to a “National Union official” pointed out that, under the agreement between Jewish Home and National Union, Peretz was named URWP chairman while Smotrich was assured the first choice of cabinet position. The implication was that Peretz was obligated to stand down and allow the more hardline Smotrich to be named education minister.
The tiff started after Smotrich responded to Ohana’s appointment by tweeting that “Netanyahu wouldn’t treat any of his other partners like he allows himself to treat religious Zionists,” and added that the URWP would “draw [necessary] conclusions” from the prime minister’s snub.
During coalition negotiations last month that failed to result in the formation of a government, the URWP lobbied aggressively for the justice and education posts, saying that Smotrich’s background in law made him a natural fit for the former position, while Peretz’s decades of work in the field of education made him suitable for the latter job.
Netanyahu fired Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Sunday in a reshuffle of his interim government ahead of the September elections. The move was widely seen as designed to prevent the once-popular right-wing ministers from using their positions to bolster their campaigns for the fall vote.
In appointing Ohana justice minister in Shaked’s stead on Wednesday — and asserting that the position would not be an interim one — Netanyahu appeared to signal to URWP that only one of the two portfolios the party had demanded would be available to it after the next election, should Likud win.
Initially, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu would temporarily assume the mantles of education and justice minister, but that sparked a backlash, with critics saying he could not hold the latter portfolio with an indictment hanging over his head. His office then backtracked and announced that interim ministers would be named within 48 hours.
On Monday, Smotrich called on Netanyahu to appoint him as Shaked’s replacement, later saying he wanted to impose Jewish religious law on the country. In response, Likud sources were quoted as saying there was no chance Smotrich would get the position after his comments, which Netanyahu also criticized in a Facebook post.