The intolerant, unyielding would-be defense minister

Bezalel Smotrich’s insistence on a top ministerial position is no surprise; what should be shocking is Netanyahu’s readiness to even contemplate giving him such authority

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

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)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Benjamin Netanyahu is running into coalition-building problems.

He leads a pretty homogeneous right-religious bloc that won a decisive 64 seats in the November 1 elections, and would have liked to have had his unprecedentedly hawkish government sworn in on Tuesday, when the 120 members of the new Knesset took their seats. But this year, as last year, he has come up against the objections of an uncompromising far-right ideologue named Bezalel Smotrich.

After the 2021 elections, the six-seat Religious Zionism party leader Smotrich prevented Netanyahu from forming a coalition that would not have included, but would have been reliant for its majority upon, the Islamist party Ra’am. Smotrich’s unyielding stance left Netanyahu with no path to a government, and thus Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett put together their improbable and short-lived eight-party coalition and sent Netanyahu, Smotrich et al into the opposition.

Now Smotrich is back — this time at the helm of a whopping 14-seat Religious Zionism party that includes the dangerous provocateur Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit. And the empowered Smotrich is demanding a frontline government portfolio — either finance or, preferably, defense — and also reportedly wants significant authority over the Jewish settlement enterprise in whichever of those posts he is installed.

While Netanyahu had previously, correctly, declared Ben Gvir “not fit” for a ministerial position, he has made clear in recent weeks that he believes Israel can somehow be tolerably served by the Otzma Yehudit leader as minister of public security — an oft-convicted, pistol-waving, Kahanist disciple in charge of the police and advocating for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

But the prime minister-designate is, reportedly, trying to draw a line against a defense minister Smotrich, having previously entertained the idea, telling the Religious Zionism leader on Tuesday evening that this ultra-critical post is now off limits, in part because of objections from the Biden administration.

As part of an apparent effort to persuade Smotrich to take a less sensitive ministerial job — such as, perhaps, the Justice Ministry, where Smotrich could set about advancing his declared goal of neutering the Israeli judiciary — leaked reports apparently emanating from Netanyahu’s Likud early Wednesday asserted that contacts are in progress to negotiate a “unity government” with the possible participation of bitter Netanyahu critics Lapid, the outgoing prime minister, and Benny Gantz, the outgoing defense minister. Needless to say, these reports are being denied by all sides.

For his part, Smotrich is said to be characteristically unyielding. He reportedly told Netanyahu Tuesday night that he won’t join the coalition without the Treasury or the Defense job, the latter of which his rabbinical patrons are encouraging him to hold out for, and won’t join the coalition, either, unless it advances the agenda for which he was elected. Netanyahu on Wednesday met with Shas leader Aryeh Deri, reportedly to persuade him to give up on the Finance Ministry, so that he can shunt Smotrich into that post instead.

If Smotrich’s implacability is unsurprising, what is extraordinary is that Netanyahu has been prepared to contemplate installing Smotrich at defense in the first place. Perhaps nothing should shock us given his readiness to give Public Security to Ben Gvir, and appoint recidivist financial offender Deri as Treasury chief. But Smotrich is a proudly intolerant radical — anti-Arab, anti-gay, anti-non-Orthodox Judaism — whose ultimate declared goal is to turn Israel into a Jewish theocracy.

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

He was also jailed for three weeks as a member of a cell allegedly planning an attack on motorists on central Israel’s Ayalon Highway with 700 liters of gasoline in protest at 2005’s Gaza disengagement, and reportedly escaped without charge only because the Shin Bet security service preferred not to expose its sources in order to prosecute him.

Prior to the election, Netanyahu had said that he intended to keep the three frontline ministries — foreign affairs, defense and finance — in the hands of his Likud party. The spectacular electoral performance of Religious Zionism, however, plainly emboldened Smotrich — who seems to have forgotten that his party was seen to be in some danger of slipping below the electoral threshold before Netanyahu brokered the alliance with Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit that sent the far-right’s fortunes soaring — and complicated Netanyahu’s calculations.

Netanyahu asserted during Tuesday’s Knesset festivities that he’d have his coalition sworn in “soon.” If so, he’ll be riding the far-right tiger he himself unleashed, with potentially devastating consequences for Israel internally and externally — on everything from relations with the Diaspora, to ties to the US, the complex security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and the domestic rule of law. But as things stand, there is no other constellation of political forces willing to join him in government.

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