Rafi Peretz inks deal with Netanyahu to enter government as Jerusalem minister

Announcement comes after day of wrangling over cabinet post, and as premier struggles to placate senior Likud lawmakers with limited number of available portfolios

Rafi Peretz, then-leader of the Jewish Home party, in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Rafi Peretz, then-leader of the Jewish Home party, in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yamina MK Rafi Peretz reached an agreement in the early hours of Friday morning to bring Peretz into the governing coalition.

Peretz will serve as minister of Jerusalem, heritage and national projects, Netanyahu and Peretz said in a joint statement. The announcement comes after Peretz split from the right-wing alliance Thursday to join the government, but became embroiled in extended talks with Netanyahu over his posting in the new government.

The Prime Minister’s Office congratulated Peretz on the appointment, saying “Minister Peretz showed responsibility toward religious Zionism and will be a central partner in the government that will be established.”

“Together we will continue to lead important processes for religious Zionism, most importantly the historic process of applying sovereignty [to settlements],” Netanyahu said, according to the Walla news site.

Peretz said he would “represent religious Zionism by strengthening Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”

Peretz’s entry into the government is subject to approval by his Jewish Home faction.

Following the announcement, Peretz wrote on Twitter: “Jerusalem, the light of the world.”

The unity government was set to be sworn in Thursday evening, but the ceremony was delayed until Sunday as Netanyahu struggled to divvy out the remaining available ministerial posts in his incoming coalition to lawmakers from his own Likud party.

The Likud and Blue and White parties have until midnight on Wednesday to swear in the new government before new elections are automatically triggered. Most analysts believe Netanyahu will prove able to deal with the crisis, and that the coalition will be sworn in next week.

Peretz walked away from the right-wing Yamina alliance on Thursday to join Netanyahu’s government but his exact posting in the new coalition had remained unclear throughout the day as the premier worked to balance the far-right lawmaker’s demands with those from members of his own Likud party.

From left to right: Yamina party members Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz at an event in the Elkana settlement on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

Peretz initially accepted the offer to bolt Yamina in exchange for being appointed Jerusalem affairs and national projects minister, but Netanyahu later sought to convince him to accept a newly created post of “minister for settlement affairs,” Likud sources told The Times of Israel.

Peretz flatly rejected that offer and threatened to bolt to the opposition if Netanyahu did not name him Jerusalem affairs minister as initially promised, the Kan public broadcaster reported. However, Netanyahu had also promised the position to Likud MK David Amsalem. It was also not clear whether Peretz would have been welcomed back into Yamina if he were to refuse to join the government given his decision to abandon the party just hours before.

The move by the outgoing education minister and former IDF chief rabbi was met with anger among some of his Yamina allies, who were shunted to the opposition after failing to cut a deal with the Likud on ministerial portfolios.

Talks between the Likud and Yamina collapsed earlier this week, with Yamina leader Naftali Bennett accusing Netanyahu of deliberately edging him out, while Likud has berated Bennett for what it described as excessive political demands that did not align with Yamina’s mere six Knesset seats.

Bennett claimed Thursday evening that Netanyahu was never authentically interested in bringing his party into the coalition and that the Likud leader had “surrendered to the left” by “erasing” a commitment to West Bank annexation from the new government’s formal platform.

Bennett, the outgoing minister of defense, strenuously denied reports that Yamina was still in talks Netanyahu to join the government after the swearing-in ceremony was delayed.

Bennett said that his party didn’t initially plan to join the opposition but was thoroughly prepared for it and would do so with its “head held high” because, had it served in the coalition with the incoming “left-wing” government, Yamina would have been forced to fall in line with policies that it ideologically opposes.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett claimed Netanyahu “erased sovereignty” from the coalition platform, which “they published like thieves in the night” late Wednesday. “He erased the words Judea and Samaria from the platform.”

Notably, Bennett made no mention of Peretz during the Thursday press conference.

Likud responded to the Yamina press conference by deriding Bennett, saying all his complaints stem from the fact that Netanyahu chose not to give him the post of health minister.

Yamina was an unwieldy amalgam of several right-wing parties that merged before the September 2019 election, dissolved a month later, and re-formed a joint ticket ahead of the March 2020 vote. The parties had run separately in the April 2019 vote, with Peretz’s Union of Right Wing Parties picking up five seats while Bennett’s New Right failed to enter parliament.

Peretz, a former army chief rabbi with no political experience, was chosen last year to lead Jewish Home after Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left the party to create the New Right as a more secular right-wing alternative.

In January 2020, Peretz memorably reneged on a political deal with the far-right Otzma Yehudit to rejoin Yamina, buckling to pressure by Netanyahu and other national religious officials. The far-right Otzma Yehudit ended up running alone and falling under the Knesset threshold.

Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, right, with Itamar Ben Gvir, left, of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party on December 20, 2019. (Courtesy)

Bennett and Netanyahu have been coalition allies since 2013, but the personal relationship between them has been rocky. Bennett had notably sparred with Netanyahu regarding military action in Gaza and at one point issued an ultimatum demanding the defense portfolio, which he later backed down from.

He later became caretaker defense minister, a post he will give up with the swearing-in of the new government, and has pushed for greater say over the nation’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

One of Yamina’s main issues has been pushing for annexation of parts of the West Bank, a move that the new government is seen as likely to pursue in any case.

The government is set to be composed of Likud, Blue and White, Labor, Gesher, United Torah Judaism and Shas. It will see Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz share the premiership, with the latter serving as defense minister for the first 18 months.

Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid — Gantz’s former Blue and White ally — was set to become opposition leader. Also in the opposition were the Joint List, left-wing Meretz, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu and Yamina.

The coalition will bring to an end 18 months of political turmoil, with three inconclusive elections.

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