Smotrich hangs on to cabinet job after denigrating Netanyahu

After meeting with PM, transportation minister expected to issue statement walking back comments

National Union party head Bezalel Smotrich arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on May 26, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
National Union party head Bezalel Smotrich arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on May 26, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly decided not to fire Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, after meeting with him Monday over his harsh criticism of the premier.

Smotrich will also keep his spot on the high-level security cabinet, according to unsourced Hebrew media reports.

The far-right minister is expected to issue a statement walking back his criticism of Netanyahu on Monday evening at the campaign launch of the United Right electoral alliance.

During the event, United Right — led by Ayelet Shaked — will reportedly announce that it is changing its name to Yamina, meaning “rightward” in Hebrew.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on June 30, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prior to the meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Hebrew media reported that Netanyahu was under pressure from ministers in his Likud party to ax Smotrich, who was appointed transportation minister in June.

Likud sources were cited as saying Netanyahu was contemplating the move and that there was great anger at Smotrich over the substance and style of his remarks.

Nonetheless, the sources said, Netanyahu was concerned that firing Smotrich would only serve to boost the United Right party, ahead of the September 17 elections.

Smotrich on Sunday launched a scathing attack on Netanyahu, following a court decision prohibiting the Afula municipality from holding a gender-segregated musical performance planned for next week at a public park. The ruling forbids organizers to seat men and women separately during the performance, saying it contravenes the principle of equality.

Smotrich called the legal system “stupid” in light of the decision. “I apologize, but despite my position, I can’t find a more refined word [to describe the ruling],” he tweeted. He went on to accuse a “weak” Netanyahu of showing “zero leadership” in the face of “judicial activism.”

Smotrich was also highly critical of the prime minister after police on Sunday temporarily shut down the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors on Tisha B’Av, the annual Jewish day of mourning for the loss of the two Temples that once stood at the contested Jerusalem holy site. Sunday was also Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday marking the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

He accused Netanyahu of “a surrender to Arab terrorism and violence at the holiest place in Judaism.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev, a Likud member, lashed out at Smotrich on Monday, calling his outburst against Netanyahu “childish.”

“He’s crossed all the red lines,” she told Channel 12 News. “It’s not respectful.”

Asked whether Netanyahu should fire Smotrich, Regev said only that she expects him to apologize. “I don’t give the prime minister advice on appointments,” she said.

She also said she does not trust United Right head Shaked, who she said is not a “natural [coalition] partner.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 28, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu had pushed back against Smotrich’s attacks later Sunday, asserting that he had never intended to close the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors and that his only consideration was “how to manage it optimally for the public’s safety, which is exactly what we did.”

“I am not impressed by all the recommendations of the Twitter cabinet,” Netanyahu added, alluding to criticism by Smotrich and United Right chairwoman Shaked, among others. “Leadership is responsibility and determination. That is how we have acted, and that is how we will continue to act.”

Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich attend a Jewish Home faction meeting at the Knesset on February 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shaked on Monday likened Smotrich to US President Donald Trump, telling Kan public radio that “his style is inappropriate, but he is absolutely right on substance.”

Speaking later to Kan, Smotrich refused to apologize or backtrack, saying he is not “Miss Manners.”

Smotrich has previously feuded with Netanyahu, who, in 2016, refused to allow him into a meeting, for questioning his leadership.

Known for making controversial remarks, Smotrich has come under attack several times for calling for Israel to be run according to Torah law.

His Twitter account was temporarily suspended last year, after he tweeted that Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian teen protester who was filmed slapping an IDF soldier, should have been shot. He was banned from the social media site for 12 hours for “offensive behavior,” along with the demand that he remove the tweet.

More recently, he got into a heated social media battle with MK Stav Shaffir, calling the opposition lawmaker “stupid” after she took to Twitter to blame members of the religious right for the stabbing of a LGBTQ teen in Tel Aviv by the victim’s relatives.

Smotrich, who has boasted of being a “proud homophobe,” has also tweeted that “someone at the top of the IDF has heatstroke,” in response to the IDF’s reported efforts to increase the integration of transgender soldiers.

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