Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party canceled all meetings planned Wednesday with Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, as coalition negotiations aimed at establishing Israel’s 37th government remain at an impasse.
The move comes after the incoming premier reportedly told the far-right lawmaker that he opposes his appointment as defense minister in the next government, citing concerns over continued cooperation with US President Joe Biden’s administration.
In a meeting held between the two following the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset on Tuesday, Netanyahu told Smotrich that the defense portfolio will likely go to a member of his Likud party, according to Hebrew media reports.
The meeting marked the first time the two had met since last Wednesday, according to Likud sources, and the first time Netanyahu has openly opposed Smotrich’s demand to become defense minister.
Netanyahu reportedly told Smotrich that Israel needs to act moderately in terms of security and diplomacy for the rest of Biden’s term, especially in regard to the West Bank. According to the reports, he is concerned about giving Smotrich authority over issues related to the particularly sensitive issue of West Bank settlements. A Walla news report said Smotrich told Netanyahu he would want authority related to settlements and to the IDF’s Civil Administration even if he takes the Treasury post.
The Likud party said the meeting with Smotrich, which was initiated by Netanyahu, was held “in good spirits.” However, the reports said Smotrich was “furious” with Netanyahu’s stance and said he would “go all the way” with his demand for the defense portfolio. He also said his party would not join the coalition if it did not commit to advancing the agenda for which it was elected, Walla reported.
Coalition negotiations have been held up due to the dispute between the two over which cabinet post Smotrich will receive.
Meanwhile, the Likud issued a statement Wednesday denying that the party was in talks with National Unity’s Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, calling reports to that effect “fake news,” and hinted that the rumors came from Religious Zionism.
“It would be best if those who are investing so much effort in spreading fake news would put their efforts into establishing a full right-wing government and soon,” the Likud statement said.
Spokespeople for Gantz and Lapid also denied there had been contact from Likud and said there were no talks. Both parties have refused to sit with Netanyahu.
According to Hebrew media reports, the US has made plain to Israel in recent days that the Biden administration would find it hard to maintain close bilateral security cooperation if Smotrich and/or his far-right political partner Itamar Ben Gvir are appointed to defense-related ministerial positions. Ben Gvir is widely expected to be name minister for public security.
The US messages have not named names, a Ynet report said, but made clear that Israel “would do well” were it appoint defense and public security ministers with whom Washington would be able to work closely on key issues such as thwarting Iran’s nuclear program, ongoing developments in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, intelligence cooperation and more.
Speculation that Smotrich could receive the defense portfolio has led to intense pushback from former Israeli defense officials as well. 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.
Multiple reports have named Likud MK Yoav Gallant — a former IDF major general — as one of Netanyahu’s top contenders for the post.
Likud sources say that while there are still several final details to be hammered out in the developing coalition agreements, once the ministerial portfolio issue with Smotrich is solved, they expect negotiations to move quickly.
Netanyahu is reportedly trying to convince Shas party leader Aryeh Deri — previously convicted of taking bribes and more recently of tax offenses — to take the defense rather than the finance portfolio his party seeks.
If he is successful in convincing Deri, Netanyahu would likely offer Smotrioch the Treasury. That scenario also poses challenges, however, considering Smotrich’s far-reaching plans for Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Deri, meanwhile, 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 Finance Ministry, but rabbis who back his Religious Zionism party are urging him not to give up on the defense minister post.
Netanyahu officially received a mandate to form a government on Sunday, giving him 28 days 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. If he needs more time, he could seek a 14-day extension from President Isaac Herzog.
Times of Israel staff and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.