Far-right Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich is reportedly delaying the appointment of a new Knesset speaker in an attempt to strengthen his hand in ongoing coalition negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
The coalition talks have snagged on Smotrich’s unyielding demand that he be appointed defense minister.
According to a report last week, the right-wing bloc is hoping to replace the Knesset speaker in the coming days in order to gain control of the parliament’s legislative agenda, then quickly pass a highly contentious law enabling the Knesset to override rulings by the High Court of Justice.
After that, the reported plan is to change current law so that a person handed a suspended sentence can be appointed to a ministerial role, allowing Shas leader Aryeh Deri to take on a portfolio.
Channel 12 reported Saturday that Likud hoped to appoint key Netanyahu ally Yariv Levin temporarily to the speaker role as soon as Monday, but that the plan was being thwarted by Smotrich.
“We have not received an official request until now, so we have not responded to it,” Religious Zionism said in a statement to the outlet, without expanding on how the party would respond if asked.
Smotrich had said he planned to travel to New York to attend a convention held by the Chabad movement this week, but has now canceled the trip while coalition negotiations are ongoing.
The report said Smotrich has now also rejected an offer from Likud under which Religious Zionism would receive the justice and education portfolios, along with a ministerial position within the Prime Minister’s Office that would be in charge of defense matters relating to the West Bank.
Netanyahu has been bucking Smotrich’s demand to name him defense minister, with sources in his Likud party leaking to the media that the presumptive premier fears the appointment would risk harming ties with the United States, which opposes the Religious Zionism chairman’s hardline policies, including as regards the West Bank.
Smotrich was arrested in 2005 during protests against the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and was held by the Shin Bet security service for three weeks, maintaining his right to remain silent and refusing to cooperate with the investigation. No indictment was filed against him. He was part of a cell of five people who were caught allegedly planning an attack on motorists on the Ayalon Highway with 700 liters of gasoline.
Netanyahu also faces issues in his attempt to give the Treasury portfolio to Deri.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara reportedly threw a wrench into Netanyahu’s latest effort to appoint the Shas leader as a minister in his expected coalition, because of the latter’s recent criminal conviction.
Current law bars individuals sentenced to prison time from serving as ministers 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 report, Deri approached one of Netanyahu’s former attorneys, Navot Tel-Zur, and requested that he draft a legal opinion that maintains that only individuals who were actually jailed need be barred from serving as ministers, as opposed to those who were handed suspended sentences.
Tel-Zur drafted the opinion and brought it to Netanyahu, who in turn presented it to Baharav-Miara. On Thursday night, the attorney general reportedly got back to Netanyahu, who is expected to serve as the next prime minister, informing him that she did not accept the legal opinion and that law referred to both suspended sentences and time served.
The network, which did not cite any sources for the report, said Baharav-Miara told Netanyahu he would have to approach the head of the Central Elections Committee, Justice Yitzhak Amit, in order to receive his legal stamp of approval for appointing Deri.
Ostensibly unconvinced that the alternative route would work, Shas MK Moshe Arbel has drafted a bill to change clause six of Basic Law: Government, which would allow those who were given suspended sentences to receive ministerial appointments.
The bill will likely face legal challenges in the Supreme Court. However, Shas and other parties of Netanyahu’s likely coalition are pushing to pass legislation that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions.
Deri’s January criminal conviction was the second of his political career.
He 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 national politics.
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.
Netanyahu officially received a mandate to form a government last Sunday, giving him 28 days to assemble a majority coalition.
If he needs more time, he could seek a 14-day extension from President Isaac Herzog.