Smotrich increases pressure on Netanyahu to make him defense minister

As coalition negotiations heat up but with presumptive next PM said reluctant to give him post, far-right leader meets former IDF generals, gets backing from prominent rabbis

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich exits a coalition negotiation meeting with Shas party head Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich exits a coalition negotiation meeting with Shas party head Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem on November 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich intensified his pressure on Likud party chief Benjamin Netanyahu to give him the post of defense minister in the likely upcoming government, meeting a series of retired military generals and getting a rabbinical stamp of approval for his demand.

As coalition negotiations were heating up following the triumph of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc of parties in this month’s elections, sources from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism have said the far-right party is demanding the defense, education and religious affairs portfolios.

Netanyahu is said to be reluctant to hand Smotrich the Defense Ministry, aiming to keep it for a member of his own party, in which case multiple reports have named Likud MK Yoav Gallant — a former IDF major general — as the top contender.

Several reports in Hebrew media Sunday evening said Netanyahu has no intention of giving the defense post to Smotrich, whose defense-related experience is minimal and who only served in the army for 14 months, starting at age 28.

In an attempt to pressure Netanyahu, Smotrich has in recent days met with six retired major generals in the Israel Defense Forces, reports said Sunday evening. The Kan public broadcaster named two of the officers as Dan Harel and Yiftach Ron-Tal.

The Kan report said Smotrich had raised with some of the commanders the option of appointing them Defense Ministry director general.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Reports that Smotrich could receive the defense post have led to intense public  pushback from a number of other 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, and then further shortened.

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.

Later on Sunday evening, Smotrich met prominent religious Zionist rabbis, headed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman and Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, and updated them on the status of coalition negotiations.

Following the meeting, the Religious Zionism party issued a statement Monday morning that said the rabbis had backed Smotrich’s demand to become defense minister and urged him “to firmly and uncompromisingly insist” on that demand “to strengthen Israel’s security and the spirit of the IDF, to prevent a Palestinian state and to regulate the settlements” in the West Bank.

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich meets prominent religious Zionist rabbis on Novemner 13, 2022. (Religious Zionism party)

The rabbis also backed the party’s demand to additionally receive the education and religious affairs portfolios, and called on Netanyahu to “recognize the power, the value and the partnership of Religious Zionism.”

Religious Zionism will demand coalition agreements that include budget requirements, reforms to the legal system, legalization of settlements and the strengthening of Israel’s Jewish identity, party sources said Sunday.

Also Sunday, Smotrich sat down with Shas chief Aryeh Deri, who is gunning to become finance minister in the next government. Smotrich is also said to be eyeing the Treasury post if he fails to get the Defense Ministry.

Netanyahu is reportedly leaning toward handing Deri the Treasury, and the Shas leader reportedly told Smotrich during the meeting that his Finance Ministry demand was genuine and not a negotiation tactic.

Opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with then-MK Aryeh Deri during a Knesset session, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Any ministerial portfolio Deri ends up receiving is likely to be challenged in court, since he admitted to tax offenses earlier this year — his second criminal conviction — and resigned from the Knesset as part of a plea deal that reportedly included him agreeing to stay out of public life.

However, he is returning to the Israeli parliament with his party holding 11 seats, making it the second-largest party in the right-religious bloc after Likud. Religious Zionism’s 14 seats, while running as one slate, are made up of separate factions, including the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and anti-LGBT Noam parties.

Netanyahu received the mandate to form the government from President Isaac Herzog on Sunday at the conclusion of the president’s consultations with the political parties.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, November 13, 2022 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu secured the recommendations of the 64 MKs in his right-religious bloc (Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism,) while outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid was nominated by 28 MKs (Yesh Atid and Labor), with the remaining 28 (National Unity, Yisrael Beytenu, Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al) declining to recommend anyone for the post.

Netanyahu is believed to be aiming to quickly form a new coalition in order to swear it in this coming week and avoid any potential last-minute U-turns from his allies. However, the battles over key posts could complicate the negotiations and delay that timeline.

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