Israeli far-right’s demand for defence post hinders Netanyahu’s coalition bid

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Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to swiftly form a government faltered on Sunday as a prospective far-right coalition partner demanded the cabinet role of defence minister. 

A clear right-wing victory in the Nov. 1 ballot – ending nearly four years of political deadlock – raised expectations within Netanyahu’s conservative Likud of speedy alliances with like-minded religious-nationalist parties.

But fissures have emerged between Likud and the powerful Religious Zionism party whose hard-line settler leaders oppose Palestinian statehood and want the occupied West Bank annexed – views in direct opposition to successive U.S. administrations.

Religious Zionism lawmakers are demanding party leader Betzalel Smotrich become defence minister in order to impact policy in the West Bank, more than half of which is under full Israeli military control and which the Palestinians want for a future state. Likud wants to keep the key post.

“There was still misunderstandings and disagreements on the matter of Smotrich. I hope this will be worked out soon,” Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar told Kan radio, adding that defence was “the most important portfolio” for Likud.

Even the finance role would present problems for Netanyahu, who had said before the election that Likud would keep the big three portfolios: defence, finance and foreign affairs.

Most countries view the settlements as illegal, a view Israel disputes, and the Palestinians say their expansion denies them a viable state.

Whichever portfolio Religious Zionism lands, the incoming government looks to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history, forcing Netanyahu into a diplomatic balancing act between his coalition and Western allies.

The HAAERTZ reports that the far-right Religious Zionism and United Torah Judaism parties have demanded legislation that gender separation at public events will not be considered discrimination, in exchange for joining the coalition of the new government.

Likud has not yet decided whether to grant the demand. This led to Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid stating: “While in Iran courageous women are fighting for their rights, in Israel, Smotrich and the ultra-Orthodox nationalists are trying to send women behind barriers and enshrine into law separation between men and women. Where is Likud? Why are they silent? This is not Iran.”

The HAAERTZ adds that according to a report in Israel Hayom, Religious Zionism and UTJ want to legalize separation of men and women at ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox cultural events, education and public services. This will prevent what they call “judicial persecution by the legal system.”

Israeli law prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, but it makes exceptions under certain conditions. In 2014, the government (then headed by Benjamin Netanyahu) adopted an inter-ministerial committee report, headed by Sarit Dana from the Justice Ministry, which outlined different ways to combat the exclusion of women.

HAAERTZ / Reuters

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