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Israel gives right-wing MKs Peretz, Smotrich top portfolios

Bezalel Smotrich, Extremist Israeli Jewish MK [Atbannett/Wikipedia]
Israeli Transportation Minister [Atbannett/Wikipedia]

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed two Knesset Members (MKs) from the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP), Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, to two of the country’s top ministries and granted them roles in the security cabinet.

Peretz – who leads the Jewish Home faction of URWP – was yesterday appointed Minister of Education, while Smotrich – URWP’s number two and leader of the National Union – was chosen as Minister of Transport. Both have been given a role in Israel’s security cabinet, though Peretz will hold only observer status.

The pair will maintain these positions as part of the interim government installed by Netanyahu after he failed to form a ruling coalition in the wake of April’s election. The Knesset last month voted to dissolve itself, triggering fresh elections for 17 September – the first time in Israel’s history that it will hold two elections in one year.

Commenting on the appointment, Peretz thanked Netanyahu for “placing his trust” in the URWP, which had pushed to be given the education portfolio as a condition for joining the prime minister’s presumed coalition.

Speaking to Army Radio just a day after April’s election – in which URWP won five seats – Peretz claimed to be a good fit for the portfolio, citing “decades of work in the field of education”. He previously worked as the Israeli army’s chief rabbi, but his involvement in Israel’s illegal settlement of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip prior to its “disengagement” in 2005 has raised concerns about his potential impact on Israel’s education system.

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Smotrich, meanwhile, was less enthusiastic about his appointment, having previously demanded both the justice and diaspora affairs portfolios. Smotrich yesterday stressed that “our hope to get the justice portfolio has not disappeared, but for this we will have to work hard and win in the upcoming elections”.

He is, however, likely to use his new position in the security cabinet to full effect, vowing to push for “a decision regarding Hamas” in the besieged Gaza Strip. In an interview with Israel’s public broadcaster Kan, Smotrich claimed that “the only solution for Gaza that will finally bring quiet, peace and security to the residents of the south [of Israel] is to return [the Israeli army] to the Gaza Strip and take responsibility to re-establish the Gush Katif settlements”. Gush Katif, which was previously located between Khan Younis and Rafah in the south of the Strip, was dismantled during Israel’s “disengagement” from the coastal enclave.

Asked whether he thought he had been denied the justice and diaspora portfolios because he “wasn’t close enough” to Netanyahu, Smotrich retorted: “I am not the prime minister’s man, I am a man of the people.”

“I am a man of the public who sent me,” he went on, “and — I hope I’m not starting an outrage here — I work for God and do what I believe is good for the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”

Smotrich sparked controversy earlier this month by saying that Israel should operate under Biblical law, “as it did in the days of King David and King Solomon”. His comments provoked outrage, forcing Netanyahu to stress that “the State of Israel will not be a halakhic state,” the term for a state governed by Jewish religious law.

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Though Netanyahu orchestrated a deal with URWP prior to the April election in a bid to bolster the right-wing bloc, he has since tried to distance himself and his Likud party from many of their policies and ideals.

To this end, Netanyahu seemingly refused to hand Smotrich the justice portfolio, opting instead to appoint Likud MK Amir Ohana as interim justice minister. Ohana is a long-time Netanyahu loyalist and is known to support changes to Israeli law which would grant the prime minister automatic immunity from prosecution in three pending corruption cases.

Smotrich has previously also expressed his support for Netanyahu’s immunity but was not given the portfolio, prompting him to protest that “Netanyahu wouldn’t treat any other of his allies as he treats the religious-Zionists [URWP]. It’s time to draw conclusions”.

In the run up to September’s election, Netanyahu will need to manage this delicate balance carefully in order to keep the URWP – and its potential five or more Knesset seats – on side, while simultaneously appeasing Likud voters who are traditionally right-wing but not universally religious-Zionist.

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