Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly trying to convince Shas leader Aryeh Deri to take the defense portfolio in order to avoid giving it to far-right Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich who has been keen on assuming the senior post.
Coalition negotiations are stuck over Smotrich’s demand to become defense minister, Channel 12 reported Monday, which said Netanyahu prefers to let him head the Finance Ministry.
Netanyahu met with Deri for several hours on Monday, during which he proposed appointing him defense minister, the network said, without citing a source.
Deri, however, is said to prefer heading the Finance Ministry and is reluctant to forgo the opportunity, even in order to become defense minister. Deri’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party has long positioned itself as a social welfare party, while many of its constituents do not serve in the IDF.
Smotrich is said to also be interested in running the treasury, but Kan reported that rabbis who back Religious Zionism are urging the party chairman not to give up on the defense minister post.
Netanyahu officially received a mandate to form a government on Sunday, giving him several weeks to form a majority coalition expected to consist of his Likud party, Religious Zionism, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which together make up 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
But Smotrich’s for a senior post has complicated efforts to quickly form a government.
According to the Ynet news website, the dispute with Smotrich 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.
Netanyahu is said to have reservations about handing the Defense Ministry to Smotrich, who has little security experience. Multiple reports have named Likud MK Yoav Gallant — a former IDF major general — as another top contender for the post.
Speculation that Smotrich could receive the defense portfolio has 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.
Smotrich was arrested in 2005 during protests against the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip and was held by the Shin Bet security service for three weeks, maintaining his right to remain silent and refusing to cooperate with the investigation. No indictment was filed against him. He was part of a cell of five people who were caught allegedly planning an attack on motorists on the Ayalon Highway with 700 liters of gasoline, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported.
Deri, who served in the military for three months, has twice been convicted of financial improprieties — one conviction in 1999 that landed him in prison for two years and another earlier this year that earned him a suspended sentence of one year behind bars.