Netanyahu clinches support of 64 MKs; Herzog to Ben Gvir: Your image raises concerns

Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu reached the required majority of recommendations from lawmakers to form the next government on Thursday, as President Isaac Herzog continued consultations with parties elected to the Knesset.

With all parties making up Netanyahu’s bloc recommending him following last week’s election, the opposition leader had officially clinched 64 votes in the 120-seat parliament for his return to the premiership, and was expected to be tasked by Herzog with forming a government on Sunday.

Meeting MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit faction on Thursday afternoon, Herzog repeated his concerns caught on a hot mic a day earlier over the far-right lawmaker’s positions.

“I said that your party has a certain image that raises concerns in many places, regarding the treatment of Arabs in our state and region. World leaders are asking me,” Herzog told Ben Gvir.

He added, “I am asked in the Muslim world about the Temple Mount. This subject is sensitive.”

The president was heard telling representatives from Shas on Wednesday: “You’re going to have a problem with the Temple Mount. That’s a critical issue,” adding that with Ben Gvir — who has pushed for major changes at the flashpoint holy site — “you have a partner that the entire world is anxious about.”

In his fact-to-face with Herzog Thursday, Ben Gvir responded: “God forbid, I do not treat Arabs as a monolith. I just returned from Eilat and saw students from a Nazareth high school. You should have seen it, everyone said, ‘Ben Gvir, come take a selfie.’”

The Otzma Yehudit chair said that he would work for the benefit of the entire country, but emphasized: “there should be order.”

On the matter of the Temple Mount, Ben Gvir told the president that “we are not saying that the Temple Mount is not holy to others, but we have to remember that the Temple Mount is our heart, our history.”

Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount compound escorted by police officers on March 31, 2022 (Facebook screenshot; used under clause 27a of the copyright law)

“All of us are against racism, and it’s impossible to say to a Jew, you can’t ascend the Temple Mount because you are Jewish. I am for equal rights,” he said.

Ben Gvir and many on the political right have long pushed for greater access and control over the Temple Mount, which is largely administered by the Jordanian Waqf. Currently, Jews can only visit the site at certain times, and are barred from praying there, though the latter limitation has been increasingly broken in recent years.

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit ran on a joint ticket with Religious Zionism led by Bezalel Smotrich and the anti-LGBT Noam party. The slate won 14 seats and is set to be the incoming coalition’s second-largest party after Likud.

After the meeting with Otzma Yehudit, Herzog met with MK Avi Maoz, the sole representative of Noam, and expressed his concerns over the lawmaker’s remarks against the LGBT community.

“In my view, the love of Israel belongs to everyone that lives in this land. There was a fear, in relation to things you said about the LGBT community. Every person is created in the image of God, and we need to respect everyone, we only have one State of Israel. This also pertains to the people in your party,” he told Maoz.

Maoz told to the president that he spoke as a representative of his party, and said his faction’s “first task is to restore respectful discourse.” The Noam chair decried remarks made by Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday accusing Maoz of seeking to establish a “racial purity department” within the government.

“He said that my desire to establish a department aimed at strengthening Jewish identity in the country is a desire to establish a racial purity department. We need to speak respectfully.”

Noam has attracted attention for its calls to ban pride parades, reinstate banned and largely debunked conversion therapy, reverse reforms that opened the kosher certification market, and promote “Jewish education” in public schools.

Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am did not recommend any candidate for prime minister during their session with Herzog.

President Issac Herzog (L) meets with Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“We have accepted the decision of the voters, but we are not giving up our right to be partners and to influence. We fear that this new government will deliberately harm the achievements that Ra’am accomplished,” Abbas said, referring to its work in the outgoing coalition.

Ra’am made history last year when it became the first Arab party in decades to join an Israeli coalition under then-prime minister Naftali Bennett, shunning the rejectionism of the other Arab factions.

“We hope that the government that will be established will agree to uphold the status quo of the al-Aqsa Mosque,” Abbas said, referring to the Temple Mount mosque that is Islam’s third-holiest site.

Earlier on Thursday, Herzog met with representatives from United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism. UTJ representatives assured Herzog that their faction would not play any part in upending the status quo on the Mount.

The ultra-Orthodox parties, along with the Chief Rabbinate, are opposed to the ascension of Jews to the holy site because they believe that Torah law bans setting foot in the sacred area.

UTJ chief Yitzhak Goldknopf told Herzog that his party’s voters had felt personally targeted by the actions of the outgoing government “and were greatly harmed” by it.

Goldknopf promised, however, to work on behalf of the entire Israeli public, not just the Haredi community.

Religious Zionism MK Orit Strock told Herzog after formally backing Netanyahu that reforms in the judicial system are a priority for the party.

“We have a great appreciation for the judicial system as a system, and for the judges and their efforts… but there is no doubt that there is a great deal to fix, and that there is a large population that is waiting for that fix,” Strock told Herzog.

President Isaac Herzog (left) meets with representatives of the Yisrael Beytenu party during consultations at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Future Religious Zionism MK Ohad Tal said that the relationship with Diaspora Jewry “is at the top of our agenda,” referencing plans to work on education, world youth groups and fighting antisemitism.

Yisrael Beytenu declined to formally back any candidate for the next prime minister during their meeting, saying that the outcome of the election is “very clear.”

MK Oded Forer said the party is particularly concerned that the expected future government will push to amend the Law of Return, which currently offers Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one parent with Jewish ancestry.

Any such change, said Forer, “would be scandalous in terms of our worldview.”

The current law is strongly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as many in Religious Zionism, for granting citizenship to many not considered Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law.

On Wednesday, Likud and Shas formally backed Netanyahu as the next prime minister, while Yesh Atid gave its support to Yair Lapid and National Unity declined to support any candidate.

The president will wrap up consultations on Friday with representatives of Hadash-Ta’al, which is not expected to recommend any candidate, and Labor, which is expected to nominate Lapid.

Likud officials said Wednesday that their bloc “will make an effort to form the government as quickly as possible,” once Netanyahu is formally tasked with the job. Despite not being awarded the mandate yet, the Likud leader has held a series of meetings with his allied party leaders over the past week.