Meeting Netanyahu, US envoy hints at opposition to naming Smotrich defense chief

Nides doesn’t mention far-right MK by name but urges PM-designate to consider appointment carefully; Religious Zionism responds by telling US to respect Israeli democracy

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US embassy in Israel)
File: US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US embassy in Israel)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides hinted at the Biden administration’s opposition to the possible appointment of far-right Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich as defense minister during a meeting with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Nides did not mention Smotrich by name, but he did urge Netanyahu to carefully consider who he picks for the senior post, given the ramifications the appointment will have on Israel’s policies in the West Bank, the official said, confirming a report on Channel 12.

Monday’s meeting was not publicized by either side. Also in attendance with Netanyahu was former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, whose name has come up as a possible candidate to serve as foreign minister or National Security Council chairman.

Smotrich has been demanding to head the Defense Ministry since his party doubled in size and won 14 seats in the Knesset elections earlier this month.

His insistence on securing the appointment has led to a standstill in coalition negotiations with Netanyahu, who reportedly told Smotrich earlier this week that he needs to be careful with who he taps as defense minister, given the Biden administration’s expectation that Israel maintain moderate policies with regards to settlement construction and treatment of the Palestinians.

Smotrich supports significantly expanding Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line and annexing large parts of the West Bank, without granting equal rights to Palestinians in those areas.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich as party chiefs pose for a group photograph during the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Responding to the Tuesday Channel 12 report, Smotrich’s party said that it “has a lot of respect and appreciation for our US ally, but the Biden administration should also respect Israeli democracy and not interfere in the establishment of an elected government.”

“A sovereign nation cannot agree to foreign dictates that would endanger Israel’s security and harm Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria,” the statement said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

The Netanyahu meeting appeared to be the latest example of the Biden administration’s apprehension over the incoming government, which is expected to be Israel’s most right-wing ever.

Last week, it issued a fiery statement blasting an “abhorrent” memorial ceremony for the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, which was attended by Religious Zionism’s Itamar Ben Gvir.

Nides also warned in interviews last week that the White House would push back against any attempts by the expected incoming Israeli government to annex all or parts of the West Bank.

An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel earlier this month that the administration was still waiting for the Israeli government to be formed before making any policy decisions. However, the US will likely have a hard time working with ministers such as Ben Gvir and Smotrich, the official said.

Israeli soldiers secure the site of car-ramming attack at the Maccabim checkpoint in the West Bank, November 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Pressed for his reaction to the rise of the far-right in Israel, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the US “hope[s] that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”

At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to convey a sense of normalcy, with Biden calling Netanyahu last week to congratulate him, and Nides tweeting afterward, “Warm phone call, great talk… unbreakable ties.”

But those relations were further tested by the US Justice Department’s decision this week to launch an investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Israeli officials have already declared that they will not cooperate with the probe, in what may lead to a standoff between Jerusalem and Washington.

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