The far-right Religious Zionism party split into three Knesset factions on Sunday, undoing the technical electoral alliance as its constituent parties begin their parliamentary work.
While the joint ticket won 14 seats in the November 1 election, Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism now holds 7, Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit 6, and the tiny Noam party now has 1 seat, after the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee approved their requests to split.
Sources in the newly independent factions have said the move was simply carrying out pre-election agreements. However, it comes against the backdrop of stalled coalition negotiations between bloc leader Likud and Smotrich, who is demanding either the Finance Ministry (desired by the Shas party) or the Defense Ministry (to which Washington is reported to object).
The split may reduce Smotrich’s leverage in negotiations with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, though Otzma Yehudit has vowed to show solidarity with Religious Zionism and on Sunday faction officials denied that the timing of the split had political significance.
“Smotrich and Ben Gvir are coordinated. They’ll go into the government with 14 seats,” said a spokesman for Religious Zionism, echoing similar statements from Ben Gvir. “That’s it.”
Party MK Simcha Rothman backed him up, saying that “it was known from the beginning that this would happen,” and the parties had “agreed that they would do it right after entering Knesset.”
Otzma Yehudit MK and expected future minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf also denied any connection to ongoing coalition negotiations, saying that it was “only procedural.”
Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Almog Cohen echoed those comments.
“No, there’s no connection to negotiations; it’s just a technical issue,” he said. “For example, we need a faction room to hold our faction meetings. We need parliamentary tools to give a response to citizens who need our help. We’ll only get all of these things when we’re a separate faction,” he added.
Israeli politics differentiates between parties and factions. Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, a party is more formally the political platform that exists outside parliament while a Knesset faction is the representation of one or more parties in the Knesset under a single leader.
A source familiar with the issue indicated that the three parties’ strategies had shifted now that they were expected to join the coalition, as part of the 64-seat strong majority Netanyahu’s Likud led-bloc won in the November 1 election. Rather than concentrate all of their power toward toppling the outgoing big-tent government from the opposition, the parties will now be fighting for space, influence, and leverage in the ruling Knesset coalition.
Assaf Shapira, director of the political reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said that splitting off delivers some parliamentary advantages, but the main thrust is political.
“I think that the main reason for splitting off is political and communications-related,” to allow each party to shape its narrative to the public and “to get more power” both in the current coalition negotiations and during the Knesset’s working session.
Being an independent faction delivers “more power, more control, more leverage in negotiations with Netanyahu,” he said.
Parliamentary tools — like caps for the number of private bills that can be discussed, the ability to place an item on the plenum’s agenda, and appointments to committees — may be somewhat augmented by being a separate faction, but “not in a meaningful way,” Shapira argued.
“What it does give is independence,” allowing each party to advance elements of its agenda without having to negotiate with the others.
Among its policy points, Otzma Yehudit has pushed to deport “disloyal” Israelis and to loosen soldiers’ live-fire regulations. Avi Maoz, head of the anti-LGBT Noam, wants to increase “Jewish education” in public schools. MKs from both parties have pushed to reinstate conversion therapy for homosexuals.
Despite waiting until Sunday to officially separate, Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam have been negotiating separately with Likud since the election results were received.
What the break-up will not affect, however, is the vast majority of the parties’ funding. Funds to repay campaign costs and to support regular Knesset work are allocated by party. These were already divided according to the alliance’s constituent parts and are not affected.
The alliance can now no longer claim the mantle of third-largest Knesset faction. Smotrich, down to seven seats, is now tied for fifth-largest with Haredi party United Torah Judaism. Haredi party Shas is now the second-largest faction in the right-wing bloc, with 11 seats, giving it greater sway in coalition formation talks.
Although he has sharpened his focus on the Defense Ministry in recent days, Smotrich has also been open to taking the Finance Ministry, which is currently being pursued by Shas leader Aryeh Deri.
Twice convicted of financial offenses and currently serving a suspended sentence, Deri is barred from taking on a ministerial position. He may appeal to the Central Elections Committee to approve his appointment despite this, or the new coalition may attempt to pass an amendment to the current law to allow him to assume office.
Amid the stall in negotiations, Smotrich announced on Saturday evening that he was canceling a planned trip to New York “in order to make full use of coalition negotiations and to bring about, with God’s help, the establishment of a fully right-wing government as quickly as possible.”