Coalition talks said stalled over Smotrich demand for Defense Ministry

Religious Zionism leader reportedly hasn’t spoken with Netanyahu since last week, with impasse delaying negotiations; Ben Gvir, gunning for public security portfolio, meets top cop

Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich, seen after a coalition meeting with Shas head Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich, seen after a coalition meeting with Shas head Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition talks between prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich are at an impasse over ministry appointments, Hebrew media reported Monday.

Smotrich’s reported demand that he receive the position of defense minister has complicated efforts to form a government that Likud had hoped to wrap up in a matter of days, with the makeup of its nascent governing coalition seemingly set.

Netanyahu officially received a mandate to form a government on Sunday, giving him several weeks to form a majority government expected to consist of Likud party, Religious Zionism, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which together make up 64 Knesset seats.

Unsourced media reports said negotiation teams have not been able to bridge the issue of Smotrich’s demand for either the defense or finance portfolios.

According to the Ynet news website, the dispute has led to talks between Likud and Religious Zionism being cut off, delaying negotiations with other parties as well.

Netanyahu and Smotrich have not met or spoken since Wednesday, according to the report.

Kan reported that rabbis who back Religious Zionism are urging Smotrich not to give up on getting the Defense Ministry.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri addresses supporters of his ultra-Orthodox party after the release of exit polls, in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

According to Channel 12 news, Likud is open to making Smotrich finance minister, but Shas head Aryeh Deri has demanded that his party receive that post.

The network said Netanyahu was trying to convince Deri to instead take the defense portfolio, freeing up the Finance Ministry for Smotrich.

However, Deri — who met with Netanyahu for several hours Monday — was apparently reluctant to give up the Treasury for the Defense Ministry. Shas has long positioned itself as a social welfare party, while many of its constituents do not serve in the IDF.

Netanyahu is said to have reservations over handing the Defense Ministry to the far-right Smotrich, who has little experience in security. Multiple reports have named Likud MK Yoav Gallant — a former IDF major general — as the top contender for the post.

Likud party leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Reports that Smotrich could receive the defense post have led to intense pushback from former top defense officials. He served only briefly in the IDF, with his service postponed to enable him to study in yeshiva and then attend law school, after which it was abbreviated further.

Several past senior IDF officers told Channel 12 of their concerns that Smotrich could be made defense minister, a role that would give him control over the West Bank.

General (res.) Tal Russo, who served as commander of the Southern Command and as head of the Operations Division, called the prospect of Smotrich getting the post “worrisome,” saying the lawmaker had “done nothing, is unknown, and evaded the army.”

“What example will he set? A citizen who did not serve in the army, that he somehow made amends and evaded service,” Russo said.

Then-Labor Party member Tal Russo speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former commander of the Air Force, Colonel (ret.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu, said it would be “a bad option.”

“Smotrich does not have the experience, the knowledge. Nor does he have enough authority when facing the entire community of the Ministry of Defense and the army,” he said.

However, General (ret.) Gershon HaCohen, who commanded the 2005 pull-out from the Gaza Strip and is a member of the hawkish “Habithonist” movement, said Smotich as defense minister might not be the best option, but is “reasonable.”

He noted that every important decision the defense minister makes goes before the cabinet, unlike some other ministries who have more freedom to act.

Smotrich met Monday with United Torah Judaism chief Yitzchak Goldknopf to coordinate coalition negotiations.

Both parties are part of Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc that won elections earlier this month.

The two leaders met for a meeting “on coordination and cooperation ahead of the establishment of a government,” a spokesman for Smotrich says.

Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox UTJ are aligned in their demand that Likud commit to passing a controversial law enabling the Knesset to override the High Court of Justice, before they sign on to joining the coalition.

Netanyahu first wants to see the coalition approved by the Knesset, and only afterwards reach agreements on policy.

With the new Knesset set to be sworn in Tuesday, Likud officials are reportedly mulling moving ahead with replacing Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy immediately, rather than waiting until it has a coalition at hand.

MK Yariv Levin, a close Netanyahu confidant, is seen as likely to be temporarily appointed to the post, Ynet reported. Levin served as speaker under a previous Netanyahu government in 2020-2021.

A separate report by the Walla news site said Likud was also considering UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, the Knesset’s longest serving member, as a temporary speaker until a new government is sworn in.

The move would allow Likud to avoid having to appoint one of its own lawmakers to the high-level position amid the ongoing disagreements in coalition talks and jockeying in the party for coveted ministerial positions.

Meanwhile, Smotrich’s partner, Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, appeared to make inroads in his quest to be appointed public security minister, sharing a hug and exchanging words with Israel Police head Kobi Shabtai.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony, in Tel Aviv, November 14, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Shabtai in the past accused Ben Gvir of helping provoke the May 2021 inter-communal riots which left several dead, hundreds injured, and resulted in widespread property damage. In response, Ben Gvir denounced Shabtai at the time as a “failure” and called for him to resign.

Shabtai and Ben Gvir met at a United Hatzalah ceremony for the dedication of a new ambulance where they clasped hands, hugged, and spoke briefly after being seated next to each other at the event.

Neither would comment to media about their meeting during the ceremony.

Ben Gvir has demanded that he be appointed public security minister, a position with authority over the police, in ongoing coalition negotiations with Netanyahu.

At the Knesset, the incoming class of 23 new lawmakers were shown around Israel’s halls of power Monday to learn about the basic functioning of the Knesset and the legislative process. The fresh MKs were upbeat as they posed for official photographs.

Among those who participated was former IDF commander Gadi Eizenkot of the National Unity alliance, unlike past army chiefs Defense Minister Benny Gantz and former defense minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who both skipped the introduction day when they first entered parliament.

New members of the Knesset seen at the plenum hall of the Knesset, in Jerusalem on November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Knesset Speaker Levy dropped by to offer advice as well, noting that he once gave a seven-and-a-half hour speech, as part of a filibuster.

“Don’t rush, ask,” he advised, according to Walla. “Don’t cross boundaries or get personal because then the friendship here crumbles.” He urged the new lawmakers to study Knesset regulations at home: “He who masters the parliamentary tools becomes very prominent.”

Likud MK Hanoch Milwidsky told Walla he had picked up other advice such as “take into consideration that everything you say here is recorded, and don’t do anything that you aren’t prepared to see open the eight o’clock news.”

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