Angling for war cabinet seat, Smotrich says Gaza should be allowed to collapse

Far-right former settler activist skirts question whether Jewish settlement should return to Gaza; Yisrael Beytenu party leader Liberman in opposition also calls for harsh stance

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads his Religious Zionism party's Knesset faction meeting, November 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads his Religious Zionism party's Knesset faction meeting, November 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Monday reiterated his call to expand the narrow war cabinet to include representatives from each coalition party, saying that politicians who in the past protested appeasing Hamas should be part of the wartime decision-making process.

Smotrich accused the current three-member war cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and minister without portfolio Benny Gantz, all center-right politicians, of holding onto an appeasement-focused security conception “that, to a large extent, brought us to the situation we find ourselves in today,” in remarks at the outset of his Religious Zionism faction’s Knesset meeting.

Six weeks into Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the far-right party head argued that Israel must make opinions heard that “up to this point have not been heard” in the war cabinet, including those of politicians “who have cried out for years against this conception, who demanded the elimination of Hamas, including the conquering of the Gaza Strip, in order to remove its threat to the State of Israel.”

Despite Smotrich trying to portray himself as an outsider and distance himself from the failures that led to the October 7 assault, he also served as a minister in the Defense Ministry in the current government, and as transportation minister in one of Netanyahu’s previous governments. He was a member of the high-level security cabinet in both.

In a 2015 interview, when describing Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel, then-MK Smotrich described the Palestinian Authority as “a burden” and Hamas, because it is a widely recognized terrorist organization, as “an asset.”

Before joining politics, Smotrich was arrested for violent activism against the government’s 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which included uprooting all Jewish settlements in the enclave.

When asked by reporters Monday if he would support renewed Jewish settlement in Gaza, Smotrich said that “it’s not the time to deal with this,” and that “about what we do afterward on the civilian side, we’ll argue about it [later].”

Netanyahu has said in recent days that Israel would not resettle Gaza nor govern the Palestinian entity, but that Israel’s military would maintain security control over the enclave. Palestinians have expressed concern that Israel’s push to move civilians out of the current area of fighting in the north could be a precursor to permanent displacement.

War cabinet from left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Minister Benny Gantz, at a televised press conference on November 18, 2023. (Channel 12/GPO Screenshot)

Netanyahu and emergency government partner Minister Benny Gantz have been silent on Smotrich’s request to join the war cabinet The far-right minister himself noted, however, that if he were added to the top-level forum, his party would continue to oppose fuel transfers into Gaza, as he did by voting against the American-backed fuel decision at Saturday evening’s security cabinet meeting.

In Smotrich’s view, squeezing Gaza’s state and civilian infrastructure would lead to a speedier resolution of the war. Netanyahu is said to have told his broader security cabinet that allowing humanitarian requests, such as fuel for sewage operations, are key to maintaining American support for continued Israeli operations. The prime minister said much the same in a Saturday night press conference.

“I think that the way to win the war is to subdue the Hamas state in Gaza, and in order to do that, we have to collapse the state system in Gaza, and not allow anything that can help Hamas continue to fight and harm our soldiers and civilians,” Smotrich said Monday.

Hawkish opposition party head Avigdor Liberman echoed Smotrich’s line by saying on Monday that Netanyahu’s government was operating under the “wrong conception,” in an “attempt to buy security with quiet, an attempt to not set off anyone,” in remarks that opened his Yisrael Beytenu’s Knesset faction meeting.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman holds a faction meeting in the Knesset on October 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

“The same wrong conception continues to be the controlling conception… in the state and diplomatic corners,” Liberman said, adding that National Unity ministers Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot are “integral parts” of the approach.

“What additional red line needs to be crossed,” he asked, before the government changes its approach to its enemies and the ongoing war.

Attacking the government from the left, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said that civil affairs continue to be mismanaged, charging that the economy, education, and basic needs for the some 200,000 Israelis evacuated from their homes near the Gaza or Lebanese borders are not being adequately addressed, more than six weeks after Hamas’s shock attack and the ongoing war it triggered.

“It’s a government that is not functioning and a prime minister that isn’t functioning, after he lost public trust,” Lapid said at the start of his Yesh Atid party’s Monday meeting. He added that “we need a functioning prime minister during wartime.”

He said that “if the considerations were not political, we would have a [new 2024] budget, we would have a much smaller and more efficient government, we would have functioning ministers in functioning ministries.”

Opposition Leader and head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 20, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition’s Shas party, in turn, panned Lapid for dipping his own toes into political issues during a time of war. Last week, Lapid called for Netanyahu to be replaced by a different Likud lawmaker so that a broader unity government could be formed in order to guide the country through the war.

“Anyone who engages in politics or makes political considerations causes a great injustice to the people of Israel and harms our soldiers,” Shas chief Aryeh Deri said in remarks ahead of his faction meeting.

“Enough, leave politics to the side. We are not changing prime ministers. I call on Lapid and Liberman to enter the government,” Deri added.

Both Lapid and Liberman entered failed negotiations to enter Netanyahu’s emergency government, with Lapid demanding to push aside extremist members of the coalition like Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, and Liberman asking for a meaningful seat on the war cabinet. Neither condition was accepted.

Lapid said that the same far-right voices created a “shameful” dynamic in Monday’s Knesset discussion over legislating a death penalty for terrorism, where lawmakers engaged in a screaming match with hostages’ families.

MK Almog Cohen of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party shouts at relatives of hostages held in Gaza during a hearing of the Knesset National Security Committee, November 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid said that the argument was “shameful, a disgrace, and a terrible insult, not only to the families of hostages, but also to the entire State of Israel,” and that it was “what happens when you take the craziest and most extreme people in the country and let them be in power.”

In particular, lawmakers from Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit pushed for Monday’s discussion of the bill, and engaged in the fight.

“When will you understand that a disaster occurred here” when Hamas raided Israel and killed 1,200 on October 7, “and it’s impossible to continue like this,” Lapid said, addressing the cabinet’s nearly 40 ministers, marrying his criticism to a broader set of domestic concerns over the need to funnel resources to the war effort.

Smotrich implied that he backed the bill, but lightly censured Otzma Yehudit’s behavior.

“I don’t think there’s a disagreement in the Israeli public about the sentence coming to these Nazis,” Smotrich said about October 7 terrorists, adding that the discussion required “more sensitivity for the hostages’ families.”

Yisrael Beytenu had put forward a version of a terrorist death penalty bill since 2015, Liberman said, but added that, while his party continues back the policy change, today’s contentious Knesset discussion was ill-timed.

“About the timing, it’s clear that, today, there was no reason for this discussion,” Liberman said, noting that no part of the bill was up for a vote.

Several of the hostages’ family members begged lawmakers to shelve the bill until their loved ones were brought home from Gaza.

Yesh Atid’s Knesset conference room is covered with posters of the nearly 240 hostages confirmed to be in Gaza.

“The State of Israel is above all obligated to return the hostages,” Lapid said, saying, as part of that, that the Hamas terror group will be toppled.

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