New Israel finance minister says to keep free-market policies

Israeli right-wing Knesset members Itamar ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich attend a session at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Incoming Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he would pursue a broad free-market policy on Wednesday, an apparent effort to allay fears he would be guided by Jewish biblical principles.

Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, had previously said his economic strategy will be infused with beliefs laid out in the Torah, predicting that this would help the country prosper.

But in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Smotrich - who will take office when Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's new government is sworn in, possibly on Thursday - noted foreign alarm at his rise and offered a different take.

"I will pursue a broad free-market policy," he wrote.

"This includes removing the government price controls and import restrictions that have limited competition and kept consumer prices high, as well as regulatory reforms and a loosening of bureaucratic control over small businesses."

Smotrich said he would be inspired by U.S. right-to-work laws and pursue similar measures to reduce union control in Israel’s labour force. That, he has said, would include banning public-sector strikes in essential services.

His "traditionalist bloc" in Netanyahu's nationalist-religious coalition had been "vilified" by U.S. media, he said.

"In reality, we seek to strengthen every citizen’s freedoms and the country’s democratic institutions, bringing Israel more closely in line with the liberal American model ... and open up the country economically".

Smotrich's tenure begins as Israel's economic growth is set to slow considerably next year - along with slower global growth - while inflation remains above 5% housing prices and costs of living rising.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Wednesday predicted a "very bad" 2023 for Israel's economy, citing demands by ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the coalition which, he argued, would encourage their constituents to stay in seminaries rather than work.

Lapid also expressed concern that large investors, such as the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, might pull investments from Israeli companies and other investors might stay away.

The $1.3 trillion fund's executive board this month had decided to exclude Israeli security and analytics software provider Cognyte Software Ltd from its portfolio citing human rights concerns.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)