Australia/Israel Review


New Netanyahu-led Coalition taking shape

Dec 14, 2022 | AIJAC staff, BICOM

Netanyahu (left) with Smotrich (second from right), and other representatives of the Religious Zionism party (Image: Twitter)
Netanyahu (left) with Smotrich (second from right), and other representatives of the Religious Zionism party (Image: Twitter)

On December 1, Israeli Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party reached an agreement in their coalition negotiations, paving the way for a new Netanyahu-led government to take office within the next few weeks with a likely majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

  • The sides appear to have reached an understanding over the recognition and provision of services to West Bank settlement outposts hitherto illegal under Israeli law (and referred to euphemistically as ‘newer settlements’). These unauthorised settlements are set to be connected to water and electricity supplies within two months, and those built on “state land” legalised within a year.
  • Smotrich will head an expanded Finance Ministry in rotation (after two years) with Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who will be appointed to both the Health and expanded Interior Ministry briefs. After rotation, Smotrich will get these portfolios. Netanyahu denied Smotrich the coveted defence portfolio, but instead will expand his party’s influence over some aspects of West Bank policy.
  • The Defence Ministry will retain the offices of Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which oversee Israeli governance in the part of the West Bank that is under complete Israeli control, labelled Area C under the Oslo Accords. Crucially, however, a Religious Zionism MK – likely either Orit Strook, Smotrich himself, or a combination – will oversee both offices and wield considerable influence over settlement policy.
  • Religious Zionism will also control the Immigration and Absorption Ministry (with Ofir Sofer the likely minister) and the chairmanship of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee (likely to be held by Simcha Rothman).

 

Other cabinet positions

The senior roles of defence, foreign, and justice minister will be selected from within the Likud and are expected to go to Yoav Galant, Amir Ohana and Yariv Levin respectively. The Education and Transport Ministries are likely to be headed by Likud MKs Eli Cohen and Miri Regev.

  • The ultra-Orthodox Shas party will control the Religious Affairs and Welfare Ministries.
  • Jewish Power party leader Itamar Ben Gvir will be named national security minister and receive an expanded public security portfolio, including authority over Border Police operating in the West Bank. 
  • Noam Party Chairman Avi Maoz will assume a “Jewish Identity” role in the Prime Minister’s office and will also oversee the Education Ministry’s external programming and collaborations.
  • The previous Negev, Galilee and Periphery Development Ministry will likely see its brief divided in two, with a Negev and Galilee portfolio handed to Jewish Power and responsibility for the periphery portfolio subsumed to the Interior Ministry under Shas control.

 

Context

The successful negotiations represent a major achievement for Religious Zionism. 

Its oversight of West Bank civilian policy and control of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee portfolio could prove crucial to the chances of implementing some of its most controversial legislative ambitions, including:

  • Changes to the Law of Return, including the removal of the “Grandfather Clause” (which allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel. This change is expected to be opposed by Netanyahu) and also ceasing recognition of non-Orthodox conversions for the purpose of immigration.
  • Increased building in settlements and clamping down on illegal Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank. 
  • Judicial reform, likely to include allowing a Knesset override of Supreme Court rulings.
  • Barring the indictment of a sitting prime minister (the so-called ‘French Law’, which is very relevant for Netanyahu who is standing trial for several alleged fraud and breach of trust allegations) and also providing immunity from criminal prosecution for other ministers.

Netanyahu has sought to calm international concern over the far-right members of his new coalition by claiming that policy will reflect a traditional Likud approach. “Defence”, he said in a recent interview, “is not merely… preventing incoming missiles. It’s also deciding on policies that could be quite inflammatory. I’m trying to avoid that.”

Netanyahu has also made comments designed to reassure international and domestic audiences that despite the dominance of religious parties in the coalition, Israel will remain guided by secular traditions in forming its laws: “Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law,” he said.

 

Likud and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party were able to reach an interim coalition deal on Dec. 6. The deal struck reportedly specified that UTJ head Yitzchak Goldknopf will oversee the Construction and Housing Ministry and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni will chair the Knesset Finance Committee. The party will also receive control over the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry.

However, at press time, there were reportedly still differences between Likud and UTJ over demands by the latter for promises the government will back the UTJ’s legislative agenda, including commitments to fully fund ultra-Orthodox schools even if they don’t meet state core curriculum requirements (teaching math and English for example); a doubling of budgets for religious seminaries for men; and legislation protecting gender segregation at public events.

Likud MKs were also said to be angry that Religious Zionism and Shas had been so well rewarded at the expense of their own party.

The announcement of Maoz’s new roles has prompted concern from Diaspora leaders and LGBTQ organisations.

  • The former are worried over Maoz’s proposals to annul recognition of non-Orthodox conversion and to restrict the right to Aliyah (immigration to Israel) to only those who can prove they have at least one Jewish parent.
  • The latter fear that Maoz will use his educational remit to promote an anti-LGBTQ agenda, having been vocal in opposing LGBTQ rights and having promised to end Jerusalem’s annual Pride Parade (Netanyahu quickly responded by promising the Parade will be held as usual).
  • Outgoing Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton recently lamented that “a man for whom hatred is his vocation is going to control the materials that get taught at schools.”

 

Looking ahead

The breakthrough with Smotrich initially appeared to make it possible Netanyahu would be able to present a government to President Isaac Herzog by Dec. 11, the initial deadline under the mandate to form government Netanyahu was given on Nov. 13.

However, Netanyahu instead requested that Herzog trigger a two-week extension, giving him until Dec. 25 to ensure not only that all posts are filled and the coalition’s agenda coordinated, but also that legislation necessary for the government’s formation can be passed. Herzog granted Netanyahu only ten days, until Dec. 21.

Aryeh Deri’s appointment will require the Knesset to pass new legislation – already prepared by Shas – clarifying that a suspended sentence does not meet the threshold of moral turpitude required to bar someone from ministerial service. Deri received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to a tax charge earlier this year. 

Legislation will also be required to allow Itamar Ben Gvir to assume the additional responsibilities over police he has been promised as national security minister. 

To pass this legislation, the incoming coalition bloc will first need to take over the parliamentary process by electing a new Speaker of Knesset. Netanyahu confidant Yariv Levin was temporarily given the speakership on Dec. 12, but is expected to resign after a few weeks to take up a cabinet post, and be replaced by another Likud MK. 

© Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. AIJAC staff also contributed to this report. 

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