ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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To end coalition rift, Ben Gvir said demanding West Bank op, unfreezing of overhaul

Report says minister also insisting on being part of security deliberations from which Netanyahu has so far sidelined him

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

With the internal coalition feud between Likud and far-right Otzma Yehudit ongoing, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir is making various demands of the ruling party to resume cooperation, Kan news reported Sunday.

The unsourced report said the minister was demanding a significant military operation against terror in the West Bank, the approval of parts of the government’s currently frozen judicial overhaul, his active involvement in discussions on matters pertaining to security and tougher incarceration conditions for Palestinian prisoners.

Last week Otzma Yehudit announced it would stop taking part in Knesset votes, citing the government’s “feeble” response to rocket fire from Gaza and other grievances. The ruling Likud party responded by telling Ben Gvir he could leave the government if he did not like the way Netanyahu runs it. A member of Ben Gvir’s party warned it could quit the government if its desired policies are ignored.

On Sunday Ben Gvir said he was boycotting the weekly cabinet meeting as Israel returned the bodies of several Palestinian men killed during attempted attacks and exchanges of fire with troops.

“The policy must change, the government must switch to a completely right-wing policy. We received a mandate from the public to change direction – and that must happen,” Ben Gvir said in a statement Sunday.

The Kan report said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sent various envoys to the minister in recent days in a bid to settle their differences, but that Ben Gvir says he wants “action and not words.”

So far, the network, noted, Netanyahu has not agreed to any of the minister’ demands.

Ben Gvir’s ministry is in charge of police, a role that traditionally sees the minister take part in high-level security discussions, though its authority does not extend to external security matters.

File: Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu with Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (courtesy, Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu has largely sidelined Ben Gvir since he entered the post, keeping him away from major decision-making forums in what is widely seen as a sign of his distrust of the far-right firebrand, and Ben Gvir has increasingly voiced frustration at being kept out of the loop.

In February, the minister said immediately after a terror attack in Jerusalem that he had instructed police to prepare for a major operation in East Jerusalem within days “to root our” terrorism — though he did not have the authority to order such action on his own. He was quickly slapped down, with a senior government official quoted in Hebrew media outlets saying “decisions of such a scale are not made in statements by one minister or another on a sidewalk at the scene of an attack.”

He was also a major thorn in Netanyahu’s side when the prime minister sought to announce in late March that he was pausing the legislation to curtail the courts amid mass protests. With the cabinet all accepting Netanyahu’s bid to delay the overhaul and hold negotiations with the opposition, Ben Gvir was the sole holdout, threatening to quit the government until the premier promised him to move forward with creating his long-sought “national guard” to tackle internal security threats.

Critics have denounced what they say is an attempt by the minister to create a policing force directly under his command, with some portraying such a force as Ben Gvir’s private militia.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The internal coalition dust-up is the latest in a series of fissures to emerge in Netanyahu’s hardline right-religious government, which has faced mounting internal pressure over its currently shelved plans to overhaul the judiciary, along with the skyrocketing cost of living, burgeoning violent crime and deepening conflict with the Palestinians.

Ben Gvir also faces increased pressure over rising terror attacks and a sharp jump in murders since he came into office in December after running on a platform of keeping citizens safer.

Kan reported on Friday that Netanyahu was looking for a way to end the rift with Ben Gvir and could bring the stalled bill on the death penalty for Palestinian terrorists to a security cabinet debate.

The bill passed a preliminary reading in early March but has since been stalled.

The Kan report said that a primary reason was that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara opposed the bill because the security ramification had not been discussed by the security cabinet, among other concerns.

The unsourced report said Netanyahu believed that the security cabinet debate would satisfy Ben Gvir, who campaigned on the issue while causing the least amount of political or diplomatic damage.

Protesters play-act as a militia proposed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, in Tel Aviv, on April 15, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

If approved by the security cabinet the bill could then advance to the Knesset for three further readings before becoming law.

The legislation stipulates that courts will be able to impose the death penalty on those who have committed a nationalistically motivated murder of a citizen of Israel. However, it would not apply to an Israeli who killed a Palestinian.

The initiative has long been weighed by the Israeli right but has consistently faced opposition from the security establishment, arguing that it would not deter future terror attacks, and the legal establishment, which cites legal challenges and warns it could harm Israel in international forums.

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