Smotrich takes aim at Likud, muddying reports of progress in coalition finagling

Netanyahu and Deri said to aim to sign deal by Wednesday night, hoping ‘rest of the parties will follow,’ but Religious Zionism accuses Likud of trying to ‘sideline’ it

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, left, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, left, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022.(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly made significant progress in talks with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on understandings for a new government, but continued to face stiff resistance from other potential partners, dampening the hope that the sides would reach a coalition deal quickly.

Likud has pushed to rapidly form a government after the election delivered the bloc it leads a 64-seat majority in the 120-lawmaker Knesset, but has hit roadblocks from its partners’ spiraling and sometimes competing demands.

Hebrew-language media reports Wednesday indicated that Netanyahu and Shas party head Aryeh Deri had reached a tentative deal, with an eye to signing an agreement as early as Wednesday night, in the hope that other parties would follow, and sign their own agreements.

According to Channel 12 news, under the deal, Deri would serve as interior minister and also health minister for the first two years of the government, and then possibly replace Religious Zionism party chief Bezalel Smotrich as finance minister.

Despite the reported progress, talks with Smotrich continued to be mired in mutual accusations, with Religious Zionism claiming Netanyahu had gone back on promises and Likud accusing the far-right party of making exaggerated demands in exchange for fealty to the nascent government.

In addition to the first two years in the Finance Ministry, Smotrich has demanded settlement affairs and immigrant absorption portfolios, as well as chair of four out of 11 coalition-controlled Knesset committees.

Citing sources involved in the talks, Haaretz reported that Smotrich also demanded control over the state’s Jewish conversion system.

Reports indicated that Likud had agreed to hand Smotrich control of the Civil Administration — the part of the Defense Ministry that manages Area C in the West Bank, where all Israeli settlers and several thousand Palestinians live under Israeli civilian and military control.

But in a lengthy statement released following reports of progress in talks, Religious Zionism accused Likud of constantly leaking “lies” to the press as part of the coalition negotiations, alleging in a lengthy statement that Likud wanted to “trample and humiliate and sideline” the far-right party.

“The Likud has unfortunately decided to hold negotiation meetings barely once every three days, and, in between, to leak spin to degrade us and to send armies of tweeters and ‘analysts’ to lie, curse, and vulgarly berate us,” it charged.

The party claimed it had ceded demands for the defense, education, and religious affairs portfolios, and had agreed to requests by Netanyahu to give up the Defense Ministry in exchange for control of the Civil Administration, receiving the Finance Ministry for two years, then holding the interior and transportation portfolios after that.

Smotrich’s potential appointment as defense minister was fiercely opposed by the United States and was criticized domestically as well, over Smotrich’s hardline ideology and lack of security experience.

“Last night, [Netanyahu] went back on all the agreements,” Religious Zionism charged. “We suggest that Likud start getting serious about the negotiation.”

“Things weren’t okay” in more than a decade under Netanyahu, the party charged, and said that it “promised that it will be different this time,” referring to a list of its often radical demands regarding security, the judiciary, settlements, and religious matters.

“We’re going with Netanyahu and Likud and we don’t think we need to prove that after the last two years, but we aren’t giving them a blank check and are not going in blindly,” the statement said. “We have no interest in mud-slinging. We will stick to our demands to ensure those who voted right-wing will get right-wing.”

Police and security personnel at the scene of a terror attack in Jerusalem, on November 23, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussil/ Flash90

In response, Likud appeared to attempt to capitalize on a right-wing push to place differences aside in the name of swiftly taking power following twin bombings in Jerusalem that left one dead and returned Israel’s focus to security challenges that both Likud and Religious Zionism had promised to address.

“Bezalel, on a day of murderous terror attacks in which the public expects the formation of a government that will restore Israeli citizens’ security, drop the insistence on jobs and come sign this evening on forming a fully right-wing government,” Likud said.

Earlier Wednesday, Likud MK Yariv Levin, the party’s point man on coalition negotiations, reportedly said in private conversations that Smotrich’s demands to shift parts of ministries to his control, such as the Civil Administration, would form “a government within a government,” classifying the asks as “delusional.”

According to network reports, under the agreement reached between Netanyahu and Deri, Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben Gvir will serve as minister for public security — a demand that the far-right MK made shortly before the elections and that Netanyahu has indicated he is ready to accept.

Ben Gvir has also pushed for the ministry tasked with developing outlying areas in the Galilee, Negev and elsewhere, a post coveted by Shas.

Citing sources involved in the talks, Kan reported on Wednesday afternoon that Deri gave up the portfolio to Ben Gvir, who was adamant about receiving tools to assist Israel’s peripheral communities.

However, Channel 12 reported later in the evening that Netanyahu was set to meet the Otzma Yehudit chair on Wednesday night and offer him the Agricultural Ministry instead.

Shas was expected to get control over the Religious Affairs Ministry, while United Torah Judaism was set to get control over the Jerusalem Ministry, the Social Equality Ministry, and the Housing Ministry.

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

Deri’s eligibility to be a minister is currently under a large question mark after the attorney general said his recent graft conviction could carry a finding of moral turpitude, which would bar him from holding a cabinet post for seven years.

Deri received a 12-month suspended sentence last year, but resigned from parliament before he signed a plea deal allowing him to dodge a conviction of moral turpitude.

Shas and Likud are reportedly looking into changing the law to allow the Shas leader, who served 22 months in prison from 2000 to 2002 on a bribe-taking conviction, to come back as a minister.

Shas head Aryeh Deri at a conference in the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem Hotel, September 12, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition negotiations between the parties have dragged on since Netanyahu was given a 28-day mandate earlier this month to form a government, amid squabbling over appointments and legislative priorities. The mandate expires December 11, but may be extended for two weeks.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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