Former IDF chief says making Smotrich defense minister would be a worrying ‘gamble’

Eisenkot warns far-right MK’s inexperience, hardline views would ‘create chaotic environment’; ex-Shin Bet man describes Smotrich’s potentially dangerous bid to thwart Gaza pullout

Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich at the party's campaign headquarters after election day, November 1, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich at the party's campaign headquarters after election day, November 1, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot warned Friday that appointing Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich as Israel’s next defense minister would be a worrying “gamble” given his hardline views and lack of security experience.

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly weighing several candidates for the senior post, including Smotrich, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and Likud MK Yoav Gallant, who is also the former head of the IDF’s Southern Command.

Eisenkot, who will be sworn in to the Knesset as an MK for the National Unity party on Tuesday, was asked about the idea of having Smotrich serve as defense minister during an interview on Channel 12 and said he was concerned by the idea and it would be “a gamble.”

“He lacks the experience and the knowledge,” the former IDF chief began, noting that “Israel faces immense external and internal threats,” which Smotrich might not be capable of addressing.

“His worldview is very problematic — regarding women in the IDF, the territories, the Palestinian Authority … views that would create a chaotic environment,” Eisenkot said.

Smotrich would likely be one of the most right-wing politicians to take on the post, not just opposing a Palestinian state as some of his predecessors have done 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.

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)

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.

Further expressing his concern regarding Smotrich, 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 [as ministers] to put into practice the things they say, this will be a very difficult period for the State of Israel.”

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

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

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

Dvir Kariv, who was a senior agent in the Shin Bet at the time, told Channel 12 Friday that Smotrich was among a group of activists who tried to stop the disengagement from Gaza by non-democratic means — including, Kariv alleged, planning to disrupt traffic on a major highway by pouring oil onto the road with potentially devastating consequences.

Israeli authorities never managed to prosecute Smotrich and his collaborators because the Shin Bet didn’t want to have to expose their sources, but Kariv said that “if their plans had been realized, it would have caused chaos in the state.”

Channel 12 also cited the late deputy Shin Bet chief Yitzhak Ilan who called Smotrich a terrorist. The far-right lawmaker threatened to sue Ilan in response.

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 released a poll (Hebrew) 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.

The network also said — 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.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz at a state memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers of the Yom Kippur War, at the military cemetery memorial hall on Mount Herzl, October 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

For their poll, Channel 12 also asked respondents whether they would prefer the narrow, right-wing government that is likely to be established or a broader unity government made up of Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity — 44% said they’d prefer the latter option while 37% said the former.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents who voted for Yesh Atid and National Unity, the party headed by former IDF chief and current defense minister Benny Gantz, preferred that the two parties join a Likud government to prevent the formation of a narrow, right-wing, religious coalition. A majority of respondents who voted for the pro-Netanyahu bloc (almost 80%) support the narrow, right-wing government set to be formed next week, according to the poll.

Respondents were also asked whether they considered leaving the country following the results of last week’s election. Thirty percent of the overall respondents said they were weighing the option and 9% said they had active plans to leave. Half of the respondents who voted for parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties said they thought about leaving the country.

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

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