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US apprehensive Netanyahu will nominate far-right defense minister

More and more American and Arab officials are sending designated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu messages, warning him against offering far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich the defense portfolio.
Bezalel Smotrich, Israeli far-right lawmaker and leader of the Religious Zionist Party.

Leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most radical figures ever to emerge in Israel’s political arena, may soon be named Israel’s minister of defense with responsibility for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Three years ago, former deputy head of the Shin Bet security service Yitzhak Ilan reportedly revealed that the agency suspected Smotrich had planned to blow up cars on a major highway during the 2005 Gaza disengagement. Ilan said at the time that Smotrich was a “Jewish terrorist.” If he gets his way and is nominated defense minister, Smotrcich will hold ministerial and constitutional authority over the West Bank, one of the most volatile places on earth.

The IDF has occupied the West Bank since capturing it in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but Israel never annexed the area and Israeli law does not apply there (except for east Jerusalem, which Israel did annex). For over half a century, the IDF has held sole responsibility for enforcing military law in the West Bank, making the defense minister the sovereign power in this territory.

Troops clash frequently with Jewish settlers living in the territory and seeking to expand their hold on the land. The IDF has had only limited success in curbing their expansion, but if the minister in charge would be himself a settler and head of a party that advocates Jewish settlement throughout these territories, the potential scenarios become absurd.

In fact, if Smotrich ends up being appointed to the post, the proposed appointment of his extremist ultra-nationalist running mate Itamar Ben-Gvir as minister of public security in charge of the Israel Police and public order will appear as a relatively small problem.

Smotrich has not been in the limelight as much as Ben-Gvir and does not devote most of his time to provocations of the kind that have made Ben-Gvir a folk hero of the far Israeli right. Smotrich is more practical-minded and thorough, advancing systematically toward his goals, fearing no one.

His views, in a nutshell, dismiss the existence of a Palestinian people with a right to self-determination, reject the two-state solution, view Israel as sovereign over the land stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and all the settlements it has established in those territories over the decades as perfectly legal. In his vision, Israel has a right to build wherever and whenever it wants and must treat the Arabs forcefully because force is the only thing they understand.

Smotrich does not regard Baruch Goldstein who massacred 29 Muslim worshipers in 1994 at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs as a terrorist. He also does not consider himself committed to the strategic relationship with Israel’s strongest ally, the United States. The prospect of Smotrich being placed in charge of the military-strategic alliance with the White House and the Pentagon is a cause of deep concern for senior officials in both capitals and beyond.

Israeli authorities this week said they were informed that the FBI launched an investigation into the shooting death of Shireen Abu Akleh, the prominent Al Jazeera television reporter killed during a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in May of this year. Israel has conceded that she was likely shot inadvertently by an IDF sharpshooter, but the Palestinians insist she was targeted. Abu Akleh was a Palestinian who held US citizenship. The FBI has yet to confirm any investigation.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz categorically rejected any Israeli cooperation with the FBI, saying Israel had conducted its own probe and any external investigation undermines its sovereignty. One can only imagine how these specific contretemps would have played out if Smotrich had been in office rather than Gantz who is highly popular with the White House, Pentagon and State Department.

Neither designated-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Israel can afford to position these two extremists at the helm of the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Public Security. Nonetheless, Smotrich is adamantly demanding the defense portfolio.

The last time Smotrich stubbornly insisted that his party would not join the Netanyahu government if Ra’am joined (in spring 2021), Netanyahu found himself on the Knesset opposition benches, out of power for the first time in 12 years. This time, based on the results of the Nov. 1 elections that handed Netanyahu and his allied parties a majority of 64 Knesset seats, Netanyahu is assured of his ability to form a government, but Israel is at risk of being run by the most dangerous government it has ever had.

Not everyone subscribes to these alarmist projections.

Retired Maj. Gen. Yiftah Ron-Tal, with whom Smotrich consulted as part of his preparations for the post he hopes to assume, assured skeptics that Smotrich is eyeing the defense minister’s post “with awe and reverence, will study the issues and will not be dragged into any adventures.”

A former Shin Bet official told Al-Monitor recently on condition of anonymity that “Smotrich surprised us greatly during the security cabinet deliberations. He was nothing like his public image; he was attentive, understood various constraints and did not make absurd demands.”

Nonetheless, Netanyahu will do all he can to avoid handing Smotrich the keys to Israel’s defense agencies. He has been inundated in recent days with messages from Washington and Middle Eastern capitals urging him to prevent such an appointment. Arab ambassadors in Israel have been expressing deep concern. Everyone understands that placing a walking timebomb in such a sensitive and volatile position is too much of a gamble, even for Netanyahu. It remains to be seen how Netanyahu will keep Smotrich happy on the one hand but keep the defense portfolio close to home — for example, handing it to Likud stalwart retired Gen. Yoav Galant.

Netanyahu’s headache appears to be intensifying. As of Nov. 15, contacts between him and Smotrich are suspended even as Netanyahu continues to meet with his other coalition partners to discuss other appointments.

Smotrich is not giving up and actually multiplies his statements on the moves he intends to take as defense minister. He has already expressed support for revoking the 2005 Gaza withdrawal law and reconstituting two settlements — Homesh and Sanur — in the northern West Bank that were razed under that law. He has also announced plans to legalize all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and relax the restrictions allowing soldiers to open fire at Palestinians throwing stones or firebombs, rather than using less lethal riot control measures.

The joint front that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have formed in the negotiations over the government formation makes it tough on Netanyahu to dismantle this landmine before it blows up. Projections that the election results would make the task of forming a government easy and quick are once again crashing against the complex realities of Israeli politics.

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