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Ex-security official foresees ‘major disaster’ if Smotrich made defense minister

Amos Gilad claims Religious Zionism chair planned terror attacks along major highway to protest 2005 Gaza disengagement, fears he could upend situation in northern West Bank

Amos Gilead, former director of the Defense Ministry's Political-Military Affairs Bureau, speaks at the Herzliya Conference on May 9, 2018. (Gilad Kavalerchik/ Herzliya Conference)
Amos Gilead, former director of the Defense Ministry's Political-Military Affairs Bureau, speaks at the Herzliya Conference on May 9, 2018. (Gilad Kavalerchik/ Herzliya Conference)

A former senior military and Defense Ministry official on Saturday said he expects a “major disaster” if Religious Zionism chair Bezalel Smotrich is appointed defense minister.

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly been weighing several candidates for the senior post, including Smotrich, Shas leader Aryeh Deri and Likud MK Yoav Gallant, the last of whom was a former head of the military’s Southern Command.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, a former head of the Military Intelligence Directorate and a former top Defense Ministry official, expressed concerns over Smotrich’s suitability for the role due to “his ideology” and far-right activism.

“This man was arrested during activities to set fire to the Ayalon Highway, or other terror attacks,” he said at a conference in Beersheba, referring to allegations that the lawmaker planned to attack motorists on the major artery to protest the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

“Smotrich can’t deny himself, he is a man with a backbone. He can’t deny the circles he came from. If he upsets the delicate balance in Samaria, it will upset relations with counties in the region. This is exactly what [Hamas’s Gaza leader] Yahya Sinwar wants,” Gilad warned, referring to the northern West Bank, which has experienced a surge in clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians over the past year.

He added: “If Smotrich implements his ideology, I expect a major disaster.”

Smotrich was arrested during protests against Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. He was held by the Shin Bet security service for three weeks, maintaining his right to remain silent and refusing to cooperate with the investigation. Smotrich has described his arrest as a point of pride.

In 2019, the late former deputy chief of the Shin Bet Yitzhak Ilan alleged that Smotrich planned to block major traffic arteries and damage infrastructure to protest the withdrawal. He was part of a cell of five people who were caught allegedly planning an attack with 700 liters of gasoline, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported. He was released without any charges being brought.

Dvir Kariv, who was a senior agent in the Shin Bet at the time, told Channel 12 Friday that Israeli authorities never managed to prosecute Smotrich and his collaborators because the Shin Bet did not want to expose its sources. However, he said that “if the plans [of Smotrich and his colleagues] had been realized, it would have caused chaos in the state.”

Smotrich would likely be one of the most right-wing politicians to take on the post of defense minister — not just opposing a Palestinian state as some of his predecessors but supporting the annexation of the West Bank and the dissolution of the Defense Ministry’s civil administration, which is responsible for civilian policy in the territory. His vision would also deny Palestinians in the West Bank equal rights to Israeli settlers.

Smotrich also opposes ongoing efforts to integrate more women into military combat units.

Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the plenum hall during a memorial ceremony marking 27 years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Analysts have noted that Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman was also viewed as a hardliner who did not actualize many of his more radical proposals upon becoming defense minister. However, Smotrich is seen as much more ideologically motivated than Liberman, who has become more closely aligned with the bloc of parties that supports a two-state solution.

Gilad is not the only former senior military official to warn against the possible appointment. Former IDF chief of staff and incoming MK Gadi Eisenkot warned Friday that appointing Smotrich would be a “gamble” given the Religious Zionism leader’s hardline views and lack of security experience.

Eisenkot, who will be sworn into the Knesset as a lawmaker representing the National Unity party on Tuesday, told Channel 12 that Smotrich’s “worldview is very problematic — regarding women in the IDF, the territories, the Palestinian Authority… views that would create a chaotic environment.”

Former IDF chief of staff and Knesset candidate Gadi Eisenkot unveils the National Unity party’s plan for improving Israel’s internal security, October 18, 2022. (Elad Malka)

Eisenkot told Channel 12 that if the Religious Zionism chairman and his No. 2 Itamar Ben Gvir — a right-wing extremist and the leading candidate to become the next public security minister — “intend to put into practice the things they say, this will be a very difficult period for the State of Israel.”

Eisenkot said that he would be concerned about Ben Gvir’s “lack of humility and that he shoots in all directions without understanding the challenges [first].”

Regarding Smotrich as a possible defense minister, Eisenkot noted his lack of military experience, which was postponed to enable him to study in yeshiva and then attend law school, and then further shortened.

Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Smotrich has also described himself as a “proud homophobe” and organized a “beasts parade” in protest of the Jerusalem pride march — both positions for which he has expressed regret more recently. He has also called Reform Judaism, the denomination of the majority of American Jews, a “fake religion.”

Channel 12 on Friday released a poll that asked respondents whether they backed Smotrich for defense minister. Just eight percent said they’d like him to receive the job compared to 29% who prefer Gallant and 29% who prefer former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

Channel 12 did not say how many people were polled, nor did it disclose the methodology or margin of error.

The network also said — albeit without citing a source — that Netanyahu is also considering Deri for the post because the Likud leader views the Shas chairman as experienced and sensible.

According to an unsourced report on Channel 13, Smotrich is unlikely to get the job and is reportedly demanding to be named finance minister if passed up for the position of defense minister.

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