UTJ presses Netanyahu on coalition demands, turning up heat as deadline nears

The United Torah Judaism party indicated Wednesday that it would not smooth Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s path back to power without securing commitments on its legislative wishlist, reportedly drawing an angry rebuke from the presumed incoming premier.

Despite having the tacit backing of a majority of Knesset lawmakers, Netanyahu has faced unexpectedly difficult negotiations to satisfy his various right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies ahead of a December 11 deadline to form a government. The Likud leader is expected to ask the president for a two-week extension.

In a press conference Wednesday, senior UTJ Knesset Member Moshe Gafni downplayed the significance of an agreement he and party head Yitzhak Goldknopf had signed with Likud allotting ministerial and committee assignments, saying there would be no full coalition deal without progress on the party’s legislative agenda.

“[Likud] asked us to sign an agreement based on [coalition] roles, but we didn’t agree, so in the end we came to an agreement that we would sign a document that is not an agreement. But we will not move ahead without progressing on key issues,” Gafni said.

Likud had apparently sought a more formal coalition agreement with UTJ in order to back up Netanyahu’s expected request for a 14-day extension from President Isaac Herzog, who tasked him with forming a government nearly a month ago.

Kan news reported Wednesday that a meeting on the matter between Gafni, Goldknopf, Netanyahu and Likud negotiator Yariv Levin descended into a shouting match when Gafni said UTJ wouldn’t sign a deal without legislative commitments.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu seen after coalition talks with Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri and Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The station quoted Netanyahu as having yelled at Gafni that “because of you there won’t be a government!”

UTJ is seeking a raft of laws, including ending the so-called grandfather clause that allows immigration for people with only a single Jewish grandparent and who are not considered Jewish themselves; enshrining a status quo in which the ultra-Orthodox have hegemony over matters of religion and state, such as conversions and use of the Western Wall plaza; allowing a simple Knesset majority of 61 to override High Court rulings; and shielding members of the Haredi community from the mandatory military draft.

“We demand that someone learning Torah can continue to do so, without quotas, targets or sanctions,” Gafni said at the press conference, in an apparent nod to legislation struck down nearly a decade ago that gave ultra-Orthodox men a pass on serving the country so long as they were enrolled in studying ancient Jewish texts.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with police officers during a protest against the arrest of a young man who failed to comply with an IDF draft order, in Jerusalem on January 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also on the party’s extensive shopping list, according to reports, are commitments to fund ultra-Orthodox schools even if they don’t meet state core curriculum requirements; a doubling of budgets for religious seminaries for men; the cancellation of a tax on sugary soft drinks and single-use plastic cutlery; and legislation protecting gender segregation at public events.

Aside from Netanyahu’s Likud, the presumed incoming coalition is set to include the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties, which have already agreed to join a coalition and would likely support the Haredi demands. Many of the demands dovetail with the ideology of ultra-Orthodox Shas, which also has yet to sign a deal.

Despite the ultra-Orthodox hurdles, Likud was reportedly already gearing up Wednesday for a legislative blitz aimed at passing several pieces of legislation needed to fulfill existing coalition commitments.

According to Channel 12 news, committees were being set up to shepherd through laws that will enable Shas leader Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister despite his recent conviction on tax charges; allow far-right Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich to gain control of civil bodies with sweeping powers over the West Bank; and moving key responsibilities from police to the newly rebranded National Security Ministry set to come under the aegis of Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich at a campaign event in the southern city of Sderot, October 26, 2022. (Flash90)

Netanyahu is reportedly hoping to have all the measures passed by the end of next week in order to have all ministers sworn in together, but members of the outgoing coalition have vowed to fight the moves and thwart any attempt to rush them through the Knesset.

Projecting confidence that a coalition would come together in time, but wading into a new minefield, Netanyahu reportedly began working Wednesday on handing out ministerial positions and other assignments to members of his own party, amid fierce jockeying within the Likud for coveted positions.

A spokesperson for Netanyahu denied the reports.

“For now, prime minister-designate Netanyahu is just hearing out Likud party members.”

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