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Facing US pressure, Netanyahu reportedly tells Smotrich ‘no’ to Defense portfolio

Defense ministry is important to Religious Zionism in large part because governance of the West Bank – which includes the settlements of Judea and Samaria – is under Israeli military law

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich, Nov. 15, 2022. (Photo: Likud)

Under pressure from the Biden administration to refrain from appointing the heads of far-right parties to defense-related minister positions, the Likud party canceled its meetings today with Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich.

Smotrich has been adamant in his demand for the Defense portfolio. But the U.S. State Department reportedly told likely incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “carefully consider” appointing leaders from the “far right,” claiming they are not conducive to security matters.

According to media reports, the message was relayed by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides in an unpublicized meeting with Netanyahu on Monday. The administration expressed concern over Smotrich and his far-right political partner, Itamar Ben Gvir, a self-declared disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane whose political party was declared a terrorist organization. 

Ben Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power party, wants to be Public Security minister in the nascent Israeli government.

Smotrich reportedly is open to running the Finance Ministry, but right-wing activists want the Defense portfolio to go to Religious Zionism particularly because governance of the West Bank – which includes the settlements of Judea and Samaria – is under Israeli military law.

Smotrich supports expanding Israel’s presence in and annexing more of the West Bank, which will likely draw the ire of the West. Religious Zionism issued a statement in response to Israel’s Channel 12 report saying that it “has a lot of respect and appreciation for our U.S. ally, but the Biden administration should also respect Israeli democracy and not interfere in the establishment of an elected government.”

“A sovereign nation cannot agree to foreign dictates that would endanger Israel’s security and harm Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria,” the statement said.

The Women for Israel’s Tomorrow, a pro-settlement organization in Israel, led by Yehudit Katsover and Nadia Matar, appealed to Smotrich to not give up on the Defense Ministry.

“These days of negotiations, you and the incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are under enormous pressure from the American administration, and from the Left … and the media, who all are having difficulty internalizing the verdict of Israeli democracy and the will of the people in Israel as expressed in the results of the elections,” Katsover and Matar wrote. “They are doing everything they can to minimize the achievement and to hold onto the dangerous hope of dividing the land and establishing an Arab state in its heart.”

Katsover and Matar noted that the recent elections were “a historic achievement” for the Israeli right-wing “and a unique opportunity to realize the key idea that we have fought for – fought all our lives for: to remove the disgrace and terrible threat of a Palestinian state, to develop the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria and realize our historic, national and legal right to the land.”

Indeed, this government is expected to be the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history.

Likud sources reportedly said that portfolio assignments would proceed smoothly once Smotrich’s role is defined. Ultra-Orthodox Shas party head Aryeh Deri – convicted twice for financial crimes – is also being considered to lead the Finance or Defense ministry.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog officially gave Netanyahu the mandate to form a government last Sunday. From that day, Netanyahu has 28 days to form a coalition, likely bringing together Likud with Religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, making 64 total seats in the 120-seat Knesset. 

If Netanyahu needs more time to forge a majority government, he can request a 14-day extension.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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