Ben-Gvir, Shas criticize Smotrich for refusal to replace Knesset speaker

Netanyahu and Smotrich met for the second time in 24 hours in an attempt to push forward the formation of a government.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Shas leader Aryeh Deri expressed frustration with the way Likud leader and prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has been handling coalition negotiations, according to Hebrew media reports on Monday evening.

According to the reports, Deri told Netanyahu that it is impossible to negotiate with Likud and that the party are not taking the negotiations seriously.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and Shas chairman Arye Deri on Monday criticized Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich for refusing to replace the current Knesset speaker with someone from one of the incoming coalition parties.

Neither mentioned Smotrich by name, but the criticism was clearly directed at him, since Smotrich is reportedly holding up the procedure to replace the speaker as a bargaining chip in his ongoing coalition negotiations with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.

Later on Monday, United Torah Judaism said it, too, was not willing to support the replacement of the speaker until a coalition agreement was signed between it and the Likud, KAN News reported.

 Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Ben-Gvir, at the start of his party’s weekly faction meeting, called on “all the factions of the coalition” to support replacing the speaker, since “it is time to govern.”

Deri said at Shas’s faction meeting, “I cannot understand how as a bloc of 64 MKs we have not yet replaced the Knesset speaker.”

Ben-Gvir and Deri were likely coordinated in their criticism. With under two weeks left for Netanyahu to swear in a government, pressure is growing to begin the process to replace the current speaker, Mickey Levy of Yesh Atid. Levy currently can control the pace of legislation and slow the incoming coalition from passing it, such as that which would enable Deri to serve as minister.

Deri’s situation depends on a ruling by the head of the Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Amit, to determine whether a tax violation he admitted in January as part of a plea deal included moral turpitude, and if so, will he will be barred from serving as a minister unless the law is changed.

Netanyahu and Smotrich met on Monday afternoon in an attempt to reach agreements on the responsibilities Smotrich will receive in the incoming government. The meeting came after a three-hour meeting the two held late on Sunday, which did not lead to a breakthrough.

The parties said in a statement following Sunday night’s meeting that it was conducted with a “good atmosphere” and that there was “progress on all of the topics.” The parties said they would “form a right-wing government as soon as possible.”

One of the remaining disputes in the talks is the regulation of illegal outposts in the West Bank, as well as illegal Palestinian construction in Area C, Army Radio reported.

“The stage of finger-pointing is behind us,” RZP No. 3, MK Orit Struck, told Army Radio on Sunday.

“We are now at the stage of serious discussions,” she said. “I believe we will arrive at an agreement.”

"We are now at the stage of serious discussions."

MK Orit Struck

Is there any progress with other parties?

A long meeting on Sunday between Netanyahu and UTJ chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni also did not lead to a breakthrough, and there are still significant differences between the two sides, a member of UTJ’s negotiations team told KAN News on Monday.

One of the issues that has yet to be agreed upon is the mechanism that will raise the budgets for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) private school systems. Israeli law stipulates that the haredi systems receive 55%-75% of the funding of public schools, but a list of agreements between the state and the Teachers Union, which the haredi teachers do not belong to, eroded the private haredi schools’ budgets and salaries, the haredi parties said. The private schools are not overseen by the Education Ministry and do not have a core curriculum of secular studies, including English and math.

Netanyahu reportedly promised UTJ prior to the November 1 election that he would raise the funding of the private school systems without demanding state oversight, but the sides have yet to agree on the mechanism.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Monday said Netanyahu’s plans for reform of the judicial system constituted “criminality that is taking advantage of the opportunity.”

“Netanyahu wants to decide who the prosecutor in his trial will be,” he said at the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual security and democracy conference. “Netanyahu wants to decide who the [High Court of Justice] judges who will debate his appeal will be. Netanyahu wants to pass a law that prevents the indictment of a sitting prime minister because he is a prime minister who was indicted. This is not judicial reform; this is not ideology. It is criminality taking advantage of the opportunity.”

“This is what needs to stop,” he said. “This is what we are determined to fight. We are not their pushovers. We are not just here to pay taxes and send our children to the army.”

Lapid said his “first step” was to explain to the public “not the what, but the why,” and what is “actually happening here: [The public] is being cheated and hurt. The country’s democratic foundations are being taken apart, all for personal reasons. There is no other reason.”

Other party leaders spoke to the media on Monday prior to their weekly faction meetings.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz denounced the recent violence by soldiers against civilians in the West Bank.

“The IDF has the authority to use force, but not to exact revenge,” he said.

While certain laws the incoming coalition is planning on can be erased in the future, a deterioration in the security situation cannot, Gantz said. Making political decisions that harm national security is a “black flag,” he said, citing as an example the agreement between the Likud and Otzma Yehudit to move the Judea and Samaria Border Police Division from the jurisdiction of IDF Central Command to the National Security Ministry, which will be under the auspices of Ben-Gvir. Other than it becoming a “private militia,” the move would cause logistical chaos and damage Israel’s capabilities, he said.

Gantz expressed opposition to the demand by Smotrich to receive power over the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, which presides over civilian matters and is currently part of the Defense Ministry. This could lead to accusations of “de facto annexation,” which Gantz said he hopes the government is not planning to do.

Noam MK Avi Maoz was asked about statements he made in recent weeks that he would use his power to limit events connected to the LGBT community, such as the Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Maoz said this was not part of his coalition agreement signed Sunday night with Netanyahu, but he did not say whether he would act to limit LGBT freedoms.

Maoz, according to the agreement, will receive power over Nativ, which assists Jews in the former Soviet Union countries, including helping them to prove their Jewish roots so they can immigrate to Israel based on the Law of Return.

Members of the incoming coalition have expressed their wish to cancel the law’s Grandfather Clause, which enables people with one Jewish grandparent to make aliyah. Maoz said he would act according to the law as it currently stands, but he will also make sure that those who are not eligible to come to Israel do not do so.

Outgoing Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said the cost of the plans that have been announced so far by the incoming coalition was more than NIS 60 billion. That would need to be funded either by raising taxes or by enlarging Israel’s deficit, he said, which will affect its international credit ratings.

Liberman said although the incoming coalition promised to be fully right-wing, the plan to significantly enlarge government spending shows that it had “started on the left foot.”

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, the Labor Party leader, said a straight line connected the violence in Hebron and the stabbing in Holon, adding that “a straight line connected the violence against Arabs and against human-rights activists in Hebron and the violence that Israeli citizens suffer in the streets.”

“For years, these parties, these people, these bad apples were out of bounds,” she said at her party’s faction meeting. “Even within right-wing circles they were outside the consensus. Now, these hateful and exclusionary parties are welcomed with a warm embrace by Benjamin Netanyahu, because everything is kosher in his attempt to escape from the trial.”