Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday appointed the top two lawmakers in the Union of Right-Wing Parties as ministers in his interim cabinet, putting Rafi Peretz in charge of the Education Ministry and giving Bezalel Smotrich the transportation portfolio.
Peretz, the head of the URWP, thanked Netanyahu for “placing his trust” in the right-wing party.
Smotrich, the No. 2 MK on the party slate, said he would continue to gun for the Justice Minister position, despite recent comments that seemingly put him out of the running for the position.
“Our hope to get the justice portfolio has not disappeared, but for this we will have to work hard and win in the upcoming elections,” he said.
Smotrich was also appointed a member of the high-level security cabinet while Peretz received observer status.
“The sides agreed to fully uphold the status quo on matters of religion and state as was custom in Israel for decades,” the Likud said in a statement announcing the appointments.
The ruling party and URWP also agreed to maintain their “deep partnership” in the upcoming September elections, the statement said.
The appointment of Smotrich, a hardliner who recently called for Israel to be governed by Jewish religious law like in biblical times, drew swift criticism from opposition lawmakers and others.
The head of left-wing party Meretz castigated Netanyahu for “including a messianic warmonger in Israel’s [security] cabinet.”
Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh tweeted that he “hopes Smotrich won’t be too disappointed when he discovers that it’s impossible to build a road back to the middle ages.”
The Blue and White party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, wondered how Smotrich would navigate the security cabinet that was not being run by the biblical King David or King Solomon.
“To give Smotrich a role in steering Israel’s security shows that Netanyahu can no longer distinguish what’s good for the state from his personal needs,” Lapid tweeted.
The Union of Right-Wing Parties is an amalgamation of the right-wing Jewish Home, National Union, and Otzma Yehudit national religious parties, which won five of the 120 Knesset seats in the April elections.
Smotrich had declared they would join Netanyahu’s coalition on condition that he receive the justice portfolio. But Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government and moved to dissolve parliament, with new elections now set for September 17.
Earlier this month, he dismissed education minister Naftali Bennett and justice minister Ayelet Shaked from their posts in a cabinet shakeup ahead of the September snap polls.
The URWP launched an aggressive campaign 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.
But after Smotrich’s controversial remarks calling for Israel to be ruled by Jewish law like in biblical times, Netanyahu tapped Likud loyalist Amir Ohana for the justice post, angering the URWP.
Reports in Hebrew-language media said that Netanyahu did not want to give Smotrich the justice portfolio, or his second choice, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, due to his hardline views.
In appointing Ohana justice minister — 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 in September, should Likud win.
In the wake of Ohana’s installation at the Justice Ministry, Peretz and Smotrich had bickered over who was more deserving of the Education Ministry, but then quickly dropped the spat and pledged unity.
Smotrich has been lobbying several right-wing factions to unite and run on a single ticket to increase the number of seats they can win and better drive nationalist agendas, such as annexing the West Bank.
After the appointments on Monday, Peretz thanked Netanyahu for “placing his trust” the URWP, and said he wished to “be the Education Minister for every child in Israel.”
Smotrich meanwhile, issued a statement saying the URWP had not given up its demand for the justice ministry.