UTJ, Religious Zionism back Netanyahu for PM as Herzog continues consultations

Yisrael Beytenu declines to endorse candidate; United Torah Judaism lawmakers vow to block changes to status quo on Temple Mount after president’s hot mic warning about Ben Gvir

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

President Isaac Herzog (left) meets with representatives of the Religious Zionism party during consultations at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog (left) meets with representatives of the Religious Zionism party during consultations at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Representatives of the United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism parties formally backed Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister during meetings with President Isaac Herzog on Thursday.

With their backing, Netanyahu has so far received 58 nods in support of him receiving the mandate to form the next government, and is expected to reach 63 or 64 by the end of the day, following Herzog’s separate meetings with the Otzma Yehudit and Noam factions.

Herzog sat down with the party representatives a day after he was overheard on a hot mic saying that “the entire world” was concerned about far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, whose Otzma Yehudit party ran on a joint slate with Religious Zionism and Noam in last week’s election.

The president was heard telling representatives from Shas: “You’re going to have a problem with the Temple Mount. That’s a critical issue,” adding that with Ben Gvir — who has pushed for major changes at the flashpoint holy site — “you have a partner that the entire world is anxious about.”

At the outset of his meeting with UTJ, Herzog joked that they were being “very careful with the sound these days,” to laughs from the gathered officials.

After the party’s meeting with Herzog, UTJ lawmakers told reporters that they would not support any changes at the flashpoint site.

UTJ head Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf speaks to the press flanked by fellow party members after a meeting with President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We’re concerned with any steps that anyone takes on the Temple Mount,” said UTJ MK Uri Maklev. Party MK Ya’akov Asher added that UTJ “will not take part in any change” to the status quo, and MK Meir Porush added: “Netanyahu won’t either.”

The ultra-Orthodox parties, along with the Chief Rabbinate, are opposed to the ascension of Jews to the holy site because they believe that Torah law bans setting foot in the sacred area.

Ben Gvir and many on the political right have long pushed for greater access and control over the Temple Mount, which is largely controlled by the Jordanian Waqf. Currently, Jews can only visit the site at certain times, and are barred from praying there.

In the meeting with Herzog, UTJ chief Yitzhak Goldknopf said his party’s voters had felt personally targeted by the actions of the outgoing government, “and were greatly harmed,” a likely reference to taxes on disposable tableware and sweetened drinks, which the party has vowed to repeal.

Goldknopf promised, however, to work on behalf of the entire Israeli public, not just the Haredi community.

Religious Zionism MK Orit Strock told Herzog after formally backing Netanyahu that reforms in the judicial system are a priority for the party.

“We have a lot of appreciation for the judicial system as a system, and for the judges and their efforts… but there is no doubt that there is a great deal to fix, and that there is a large population that is waiting for that fix,” Strock told Herzog.

Future Religious Zionism MK Ohad Tal said that the relationship with Diaspora Jewry “is at the top of our agenda,” referencing plans to work on education, world youth groups and fighting antisemitism.

President Isaac Herzog (left) meets with representatives of the Yisrael Beytenu party during consultations at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A delegation from Yisrael Beytenu declined to formally back any candidate for the next prime minister, saying that the outcome of the election is “very clear.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer said the party is particularly concerned that the expected future government will work to change the Law of Return, which currently offers Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one parent with Jewish ancestry.

Any such change, said Forer, “would be scandalous in terms of our worldview.”

The current law is strongly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as many in Religious Zionism, for granting citizenship to many not considered Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law.

On Wednesday, Likud and Shas formally backed Netanyahu as the next prime minister, while Yesh Atid gave its support to Yair Lapid and National Unity declined to support any candidate.

Despite the fact that Ben Gvir and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich announced on Sunday that they would negotiate their entry into the coalition as a bloc, Herzog is meeting separately with all three factions on the joint electoral slate.

On Thursday afternoon Herzog is scheduled to meet with Otzma Yehudit, Noam and Ra’am. The president’s office said that he will complete his round of consultations on Friday — meeting with Labor and Hadash-Ta’al — and is expected to hand the mandate to Netanyahu on Sunday.

Likud officials said Wednesday that their bloc “will make an effort to form the government as quickly as possible,” once Netanyahu is formally tasked with the job. Despite not being awarded the mandate yet, the Likud leader has held a series of meetings with his allied party leaders over the past week.

Most Popular
read more: