The future coalition has condemned itself to being born in pain
The Knesset swearing-in ceremony is an event that’s supposed to take place every four years, at the end of the term recognized by Israeli law. One by one, the newly elected members enter the Knesset building, the most secure location in the State of Israel. Ringed with electric security fences and protected by a special security unit, the Knesset Guard, even Israeli police and the IDF can’t enter this fortified compound without special permission.
The guards are decked out in full dress uniform in honor of the occasion, and a red carpet greets the members in the entrance hall. At they walk in, a blue and white rosette is pinned to their lapels, marking them as newly sworn-in MKs.
In the plenum itself, facing the nation’s president, the MKs stand up one after another to declare: “I pledge to remain loyal to the State of Israel and faithfully fulfill my duties as a member of the Knesset.” At the end of the swearing-in ceremony comes the official gala in the Chagall State Hall, which is also where the party leaders pose for their traditional photo with the president.
The swearing-in of the 25th Knesset — the fifth since 2019 — was supposed to be a festive occasion for the right-religious bloc. At the end of five snap elections in less than four years, Israeli voters had delivered a decisive verdict, handing the right-wing bloc under outgoing opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu a clear majority with 64 seats.
Netanyahu’s goal as soon as the results became clear was to accelerate the negotiation process with his right-wing allies in order to arrive at the ceremony ready to swear in the 37th government as well.
In reality, not only did that not happen, but the ties between the leaders of the right-wing bloc, which survived a year in the opposition, finally came undone.
AT the heart of the turmoil surrounding the formation of a right-wing government under Binyamin Netanyahu stands Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party. Smotrich, whose head is adorned with a large knitted kippah, is a former ally of Naftali Bennett — the man who deserted the right-wing bloc to lead the recently deceased “change government.”
In the recent election, Smotrich ran as part of an electoral alliance — in Israel they call it a “technical bloc” — with Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, who became the star of the election. Smotrich rode Ben Gvir’s popularity to an unprecedented result of 14 seats for their joint list, which led him to set his sights on one of the two most prestigious portfolios — finance or defense.
But Netanyahu, who’s back to govern and not merely to fill the vacuum in the prime minister’s office, has dug his heels in. He started his campaign to put Smotrich in his place by pressuring Aryeh Deri to demand the Finance Ministry for the Shas movement, a step that no chareidi party leader has ever made in the history of the state.
“The results of the election were clear,” Deri said in a candid conversation with Mishpacha. “Israeli voters want to see Shas moving up to a front-row seat.”
But Smotrich was undaunted. To avoid being beaten out for a position of top influence in the next cabinet by Aryeh Deri, he started pressing Netanyahu for the defense portfolio as a condition for entering the government. But for Netanyahu, this is a red line. In a one-on-one conversation with Smotrich after several days of impasse, Netanyahu made it clear to him that entrusting the Defense Ministry to someone perceived globally as a right-wing extremist is not an option.
After the boost Biden received in the midterm elections by maintaining the Democratic majority in the Senate, US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides asked Netanyahu to think very carefully about his choice for minister of defense. The recent UN resolution referring the “Israeli occupation” to the International Court of Justice at the Hague shifted the warning light from orange to red.
Such was Netanyahu’s concern that in a spectacular U-turn, he began pressing Deri to take the Defense Ministry instead of the Treasury.
Deri does have a lot of experience, having sat in the Security Cabinet since the days of the Rabin government, but the best answer to Netanyahu’s offer came from Mrs. Yaffa Deri, who accompanied her husband Aryeh to the swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday.
“What does my husband have to do with the Defense Ministry?” she asked.
The resulting chaos has reduced the coalition negotiations to a free-for-all. And so, instead of arriving to the swearing-in ceremony all smiles, right-wing MKs wore long faces.
At the same time, to put pressure on Smotrich, reports began circulating of coalition talks with the center-left parties of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.
“All this talk is completely unnecessary,” Moshe Gafni told me. The Degel HaTorah chairman already received his post — chairmanship of the influential Knesset Finance Committee — last week. “At the end of the day, we’ll all enter the government as a right-wing coalition.”
A government will be formed, and no one will be surprised if Deri ends up relinquishing the Finance Ministry, so as to allow Smotrich to climb down from his tree and save face. But one thing is clear: Instead of forming a right-wing government quickly and in an atmosphere of camaraderie, the future coalition has condemned itself to being born in pain.
IN the absence of a “victory picture” from the swearing-in ceremony, the good cheer had to supplied by the wives of the coalition leaders, who came together for a team-building meeting at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem, patronized by many tourists from America and Europe.
But even this pleasant ambience was marred by a quasi-controversy that arose when Ayalah Ben Gvir, the wife of Itamar Ben Gvir — who met the chief of the Israeli police last week on his way to the post of public security minister — was photographed next to Sarah Netanyahu wearing a handgun holster.
“This was a manufactured outcry on the part of those who haven’t internalized the election result,” Mrs. Ben Gvir told me. “My husband is one of the most threatened people in Israel, and as a Chevron resident I’ve carried a gun for years to defend myself in case of emergency.”
But with all due respect to Mrs. Ben Gvir’s handgun, one other feature stood out in the photo of the party leaders’ wives. All of them wore headcoverings — aside from Sarah Netanyahu, who herself looked like she could be heading over to the Chabad primary school where she serves as psychologist.
“In our meeting, the conversation was very faith-centered, with a lot of divrei Torah and discussion of siyata d’Shmaya,” Mrs. Deri told me with a smile.
This is the face of the merging government. The change coalition will give way to a faith coalition. All that remains to be hoped is that with the public spat between Netanyahu and Smotrich, the right-wing government won’t start out on a left foot.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 937)
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