Ben Gvir to get expanded control over police

Report: Smotrich to become finance, not defense, minister in compromise with Likud

In emerging breakthrough in coalition negotiations, defense portfolio to be held by Netanyahu’s party; Shas leader Deri to get a ‘super ministry’ consolidating powers, TV news says

Religious Zionist head Bezalel Smotrich attends a discussion in the Knesset on  November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionist head Bezalel Smotrich attends a discussion in the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a compromise with far-right Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich in their stalled coalition talks, with the latter agreeing to give up his demand to be defense minister and instead take over the Treasury, Channel 12 reported Monday.

Smotrich had demanded the Defense Ministry, which would have given him significant control over the West Bank and over the daily lives of Palestinians. Such an appointment was fiercely opposed by the United States and was criticized domestically as well, including by right-wing figures, who noted Smotrich’s lack of security experience.

Instead, the defense portfolio will remain with Netanyahu’s Likud party.

According to Channel 12’s unsourced report, Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party will nevertheless have some control over Israel’s West Bank policies and will be able to name a subordinate minister within the Defense Ministry, similar to Minister Michael Biton, who currently has such a position under outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Likud MK Yoav Gallant, a former IDF general, has been named as the most likely next defense minister in such an arrangement.

Under the proposed compromise, which has yet to be confirmed by the parties, Smotrich would gain control of the Finance Ministry, while the other main contender for that job — Shas leader Aryeh Deri — will get the Interior Ministry.

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri leaves a meeting with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 16, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

A report by the Kan public broadcaster, meanwhile, suggested that Deri would receive a “super ministry” that would effectively combine the Interior Ministry and Transportation Ministry into one office — to make up for losing out on the finance minister job.

Both Kan and Channel 12 reported that Deri’s ultra-Orthodox party would also receive the Negev and Galilee Ministry. Kan said the party was also set to control the Health Ministry and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, while Channel 12 said instead that it would receive the Religious Services Ministry and a position in the Prime Minister’s Office.

According to Channel 12, Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, will be named public security minister, giving him control over the police, and his party will also take the Agriculture Ministry. Otzma Yehudit had been clamoring for the Negev and Galilee Ministry, threatening Sunday to break off negotiations with Likud if its demand wasn’t met.

Channel 12 noted that negotiations were ongoing and appointments could still change. However, the described framework would remove some of the main obstacles that have prevented Netanyahu from putting together a working coalition government since his victory at the head of a bloc of right and religious parties in the November 1 elections.

Likud declined to comment on the negotiations but said that some of the myriad reports were not true.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Deri appointment faces legal challenges that will require changing the country’s quasi-constitutional laws, the report said.

Current law bars individuals sentenced to prison time from serving as a minister for seven years. Deri was convicted of several tax offenses earlier this year and received a 12-month suspended sentence, ostensibly barring him from receiving another cabinet post. According to a Friday Channel 12 news report, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has clarified the Basic Law referred to both suspended sentences and jail time.

Shas MK Moshe Arbel has in the meantime drafted a bill to change clause six of Basic Law: Government, which would allow those who were given suspended sentences to receive ministerial appointments.

In addition, the post of acting prime minister is by law only available to those who are in the same party as the prime minister, requiring more legislation to open the position for Deri, Channel 12 said.

Deri previously served 22 months in prison from 2000 to 2002, after he was convicted of taking bribes while serving as interior minister. That verdict carried a conviction of moral turpitude, keeping him out of politics for seven years after his release.

In 2013, he returned to politics, reclaiming the leadership of Shas and ultimately returning to serve as interior minister from 2016 until last year, when his party entered the opposition. A court had ruled that his prior conviction did not disqualify him from the position.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir arrive for the swearing-in ceremony for the new Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Ben Gvir’s appointment to head the Public Security Ministry also includes an understanding with Likud that the ministry will have expanded power over the Israel Police, with changes to be made to a police order that governs the relationship, Haaretz reported.

The report cited an unnamed senior figure in the law enforcement system as worrying such an arrangement “significantly harms the independence of the police and the commissioner and lets the politician determine how the police will act.”

The proposal was raised during negotiations between Likud and Otzma Yehudit, according to several sources familiar with the developments. They said it will not be specifically mentioned in coalition agreements but rather covered by a more general clause granting powers to the public security minister.

Currently, the order governing the relationship between the ministry and the law enforcement body it oversees does not say that the police are subordinate to the minister, enabling full independence for the force. The minister has certain authority to recommend who should be the police commissioner, approve officers from the rank of deputy superintendent and up, and fire officers. The minister can also lay down certain regulations, such as those regarding obtaining a gun license.

Otzma Yehudit said in a statement, “We do not address what is happening in the negotiation rooms, but we also assure readers of Haaretz that we are working day and night to restore rule of law to the street.”

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony, in Tel Aviv, November 14, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

According to the report, current Public Security Minister Omer Barlev has clashed with Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai over police policy during his term, even seeking clarification from the attorney general on the extent of his powers to set policy.

Barlev respond to the Haaretz report by saying the alleged agreement between Otzma Yehudit and Likud raises “a serious concern that the minister will use the police for his political needs” and warned that the commissioner could become “a puppet.”

The Public Security Ministry must not become a “super commissioner,” Barlev warned. “In this situation, there is a serious fear that he will use the police for his political needs. The independence of the police is a fundamental issue in maintaining democracy, and harming its independence is harming democracy.”

“There must be a clear separation between the minister as a political rank, and the police,” he said.

“The minister already has the authority to set policy regarding all enforcement bodies and there is no need to change and grant more powers in the law,” Barlev said, noting he had never felt any limitation in setting policy.

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