Otzma Yehudit breaks off talks in row over additional ministry; Religious Zionism chief Smotrich won’t budge on Defense Ministry demand and wants Netanyahu to commit to annexation
By TOI STAFF
With coalition talks to set up the next Israeli government making little headway , the Likud party headed by prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu ran into more trouble on Sunday when a key partner, the far-right Otzma Yehudit, declared it was breaking off negotiations over a sharp disagreement on proposed ministerial posts.
Otzma Yehudit said Likud was looking to walk back a deal to appoint a member of the far-right party as the next head of the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee. Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir is already gunning for the Public Security Ministry, but with his party holding six seats in the Knesset, he’s hoping to claim at least one more portfolio.
“Contrary to an earlier agreement, Likud retracted and now refuses to give the additional ministry — the Negev, the Galilee and the social periphery — to Otzma Yehudit,” an unnamed party official told media outlets.
“Strengthening the Negev, the Galilee, and the periphery is our election promise, and we were elected to fulfill election promises,” the official said.
It was the latest hurdle thrown up by Netanyahu’s prospective coalition partners as he tries to negotiate agreements among a bloc of right and religious parties led by his Likud to establish a government following their victory in the November 1 election.
Netanyahu, who had hoped to swiftly reach coalition agreements and establish a government, is already at an impasse with another far-right party, Religious Zionism, whose leader — Bezalel Smotrich — has stubbornly demanded the position of defense minister or finance minister in the prospective coalition.
Netanyahu has been opposed to granting Smotrich the defense role due to his lack of experience in the military, potentially inflammatory plans, expected international blowback, and other concerns. His potential appointment has been harshly criticized.
Smotrich is opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state and supports the annexation of the West Bank and the dissolution of the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which is responsible for civilian policy in the territory. His vision would also deny Palestinians in the West Bank rights equal to Israeli settlers. Smotrich has also opposed ongoing efforts to integrate more women into military combat units.
Netanyahu reportedly aims to keep the Defense Ministry within his Likud party, possibly by granting it to MK Yoav Gallant.
Smotrich’s insistence on the defense post has irked many in the Likud party, who view him as holding up the formation of a government.
On Sunday, Smotrich shared a post from a Likud supporter who compared the Religious Zionism leader to Hamas terror chief Yahya Sinwar, and took aim at the party.
“It cannot be that every time we don’t stand to attention to Likud’s demands, there are those who will turn us into enemies, incite against us, and demean us,” Smotrich tweeted.
Smotrich said his party was “a full partner of the national camp and of Likud. We will stand by our demands in order to ensure the establishment of a good, stable government as soon as possible, that will… advance genuine right-wing policies.”
Ben Gvir, whose party had yet to declare talks were off on Sunday afternoon, wrote in response: “My friends in the national camp, come and be responsible. Let’s stop the unnecessary fighting. The time has come for a true right-wing government. The public that elected us is waiting.”
Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and the anti-LGBTQ Noam party, which all ran together in the elections, split into three separate parties on Sunday, undoing a technical alliance set up for the purpose of the election.
While the joint ticket won 14 seats in the November 1 election, Religious Zionism now holds 7, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit 6, and Noam now has 1 seat.
The split may reduce Smotrich’s leverage in negotiations with Netanyahu, though Otzma Yehudit has vowed to show solidarity with Religious Zionism. On Sunday, faction officials denied that the timing of the split had political significance.
Further complicating the coalition negotiations, Religious Zionism is reportedly demanding Netanyahu commit to annexing parts of the West Bank as part of the coalition agreements.
Annexation would be a major step that would ignite tensions with the Palestinians and infuriate the international community, including the US. It would also complicate Netanyahu’s stated goals of expanding the Abraham Accords and normalizing relations with more Arab-majority countries.
Netanyahu’s party has refused to come to any agreements on annexation and the issue remains up in the air, a Channel 13 report said Sunday.
Religious Zionism said in a statement, “We are working on detailed agreements on subjects connected to the national camp including the issue of sovereignty. We’re leaving the details behind closed doors.”
Another key hurdle has been the refusal by Shas party chief Aryeh Deri to back down from his demand for the Finance Ministry.
Smotrich has also refused Likud’s request that he meet with Deri to discuss the Finance Ministry post, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Sources close to Smotrich said in response that he was demanding the Defense Ministry and “negotiations on the Finance Ministry are behind us.”
Veteran MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party has begun mediating between Smotrich, Deri and Netanyahu in an attempt to reach a deal, Kan reported.
It’s unclear whether Deri can serve in the cabinet at all due to his recent criminal conviction. Twice convicted of financial offenses and currently serving a suspended sentence, Deri is barred from taking on a ministerial position. He may appeal to the Central Elections Committee to approve his appointment despite this, or the new coalition may attempt to pass an amendment to the current law to allow him to assume office.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara released a letter Sunday saying the Central Elections Committee would need to rule on whether there was moral turpitude involved in the Shas leader’s conviction before he takes up a cabinet post, throwing a wrench into Netanyahu’s negotiations.
One area of relative consensus in the negotiations is highly contentious, proposed legislation that would enable the Knesset to override rulings by the High Court of Justice (also known as the override clause). The legislation is seen as a top priority for the Religious Zionism and United Torah Judaism parties, and many in Likud, and of potential benefit to Netanyahu in extricating himself from his ongoing corruption trial.
An unsourced report on Channel 12 on Sunday said that the as-yet-unfinalized, planned override clause would require 80% of an enlarged panel of 10 or 12 justices to strike down a law in the first place; then the Knesset could re-legislate it with the support of a slim majority of 61 MKs. The report said the first part of the reform was a top priority for the Likud.
Also Sunday, Orthodox parties issued a fresh to demand to Netanyahu seeking to pass legislation that would permit gender segregation at publicly funded events.
Having separate male-female seating arrangements at public events and in public spaces falls afoul of laws against discrimination. Some religious Israelis, however, maintain that forbidding gender segregation, which they see as a religious commandment, is discriminatory against them as it means they are not able to fully take part in public events.
This proposal joins several contentious religion-and-state demands made during coalition negotiations thus far, such as dramatically restricting Israel’s immigration policies including by abolishing the ‘grandchild clause’ in the Law of Return, revoking state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism, and overturning — at least in part — reforms to Israel’s kashrut authorities.
Netanyahu, whose bloc won 64 of the 120 Knesset seats on November 1, 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.
Times of Israel