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UAE warns Netanyahu against government with Ben Gvir and Smotrich

Official says Abdullah bin Zayed told opposition leader partnering with Religious Zionism risks upending bilateral ties; Likud leader responded that he’s handling matter

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu meets with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in Tel Aviv on September 16, 2022. (Benjamin Netanyahu/Twitter)
Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu meets with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in Tel Aviv on September 16, 2022. (Benjamin Netanyahu/Twitter)

United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed warned opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu against including far-right lawmakers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in his government if the Likud leader is tasked with forming a coalition after next week’s election, a senior official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The message was passed along during a meeting that took place last month when bin Zayed was visiting Israel, the official said, confirming a report in the Axios news site.

Bin Zayed warned that the inclusion of such extremist lawmakers in Netanyahu’s government risked upending ties with the UAE in addition to the Abraham Accords more broadly, the official said. Ties between Israel and the UAE were established two years ago as part of the Abraham Accords.

The opposition leader assured the top Emirati diplomat that he was handling the matter, without elaborating further, the official said, who said that the meeting between bin Zayed and Netanyahu was warm despite the Emirati warning.

Both sides declined to comment on the meeting.

Bin Zayed was not the first Israel ally to warn Netanyahu against partnering with Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s Religious Zionism party, but such concerns have largely been coming from more progressive circles.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir and MK Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit register their party for the upcoming elections at the Knesset, September 14, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Netanyahu has not accepted the criticism, and fumed at United States Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez when he raised the issue last month. He declared Tuesday that he would not “bow [his] head” to US lawmakers warning him against Ben Gvir and has announced that the far-right lawmaker would be a minister in his cabinet if Likud wins the November 1 election.

In a bid to improve his chances of returning to power before the previous election, the Likud leader orchestrated a merger deal that ensured the entry of Ben Gvir’s extremist Otzma Yehudit into the Knesset. He worked to encourage a similar agreement ahead of the upcoming November 1 election.

Far-right MK Ben Gvir is No. 2 on the Religious Zionism slate, which is projected to win between 12 and 14 seats, positioning himself to receive a senior cabinet posting if Netanyahu manages to form the kind of hard-right, religious coalition on which he has been campaigning.

Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in the 1980s in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has been convicted on terror charges, though he insists he has moderated in recent years and does not hold the same beliefs as the Kach founder.

Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading: “Expel the Arab enemy.”

Until it began to harm him politically, he kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein on a wall of his Hebron home. Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Recently, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 10, 2020. (Courtesy)

Smotrich is the chairman of Religious Zionism and was seen as one of Israel’s most extremist lawmakers before Ben Gvir entered politics last year.

Smotrich first made national headlines for organizing a so-called “Beast Parade,” to protest the gay pride march in Jerusalem in 2006. More than a decade later, he called himself a “proud homophobe” before eventually toning down and even apologizing for some of his remarks on the matter.

Smotrich also has a long history of remarks against Arab Israelis and Palestinians, calling it “natural” for his wife not to want to deliver a baby in the same hospital ward as an Arab woman.

Last year, he lamented that Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion didn’t “finish the job” and kick all Arabs out of the country when it was founded.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, center, visits Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv on Oct. 21, 2022. (AP/Oded Balilty)

“You’re here by mistake,” he shouted at Arab MKs in the Knesset plenum.

He has also called Judaism’s Reform Movement — the largest in the US — a “fake religion.”

More recently, he unveiled a legal initiative he hopes to initiate in a future government that would scrap the charges of fraud and breach of trust from Israel’s legal code. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three of the criminal cases in which he is on trial.

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