Netanyahu, Religious Zionism in deadlock over coalition partner’s demands

Netanyahu and Smotrich reportedly have not spoken in several days, apparently unable to resolve their differences. Zionist rabbis are urging Smotrich not to back down. 

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Zionist rabbis who back the Religious Zionism party called on its chairman Monday not to back down on his demand for the Defense Ministry in coalition negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The group, headed by the doyen of the nationalist stream, 90-year-old Rabbi Haim Druckman, said that MK Bezalel Smotrich must “unequivocally and uncompromisingly stand up to the demand for the position of Minister of Defense in order to strengthen the security of the State of Israel, strengthen the spirit of the IDF, prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and regulate the settlements in Judea and Samaria.”

Furthermore, the party, which is expected to be the second-largest faction in the coalition, should also stick to its demand for the Education and Religious Affairs portfolios because “it is of the utmost importance that religious Zionism lead the efforts for the Jewish identity of the state in the spirit of the Torah of Israel.”

The group also appealed to prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu to “recognize the power, value and partnership of Religious Zionism, which won the trust of over half a million voters and received 14 mandates.”

Meanwhile, reports indicate that Netanyahu and Smotrich have not spoken since Wednesday, apparently unable to resolve their differences over the ministries.

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With a possible eye on the job themselves, senior Likud members have tried to dissuade Smotrich from the position.

Likud MK Yoav Galant, a former candidate for chief of staff, used the experience card, telling Kan Reshet Bet that “Smotrich is a smart man, but by what right can he be defense minister?”

“What moral authority does he have to send people on missions that they may never return from, when he himself never did this?” he added.

A left-wing movement called Commanders for Israel’s Security, whose members are former senior officials of the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet and Israel Police, also denigrated his ability to head the office and implied that he would let his political leanings influence his work.

“The security of the State of Israel and in particular the position of the Minister of Defense require responsibility, seriousness and making only professional decisions on a daily basis,” they said. “Therefore, the security file should be given to a responsible and experienced hand in dealing with security issues.”

Smotrich hit back, specifically reminding Galant that in 2019 he praised Likud hawk Moshe Arens upon his death as “one of the best defense ministers Israel had ever had,” even though Arens had never served in the IDF.

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Israel has had several defense ministers in the past without significant or direct military experience, including  Shimon Peres, who was also a prime minister, and Amir Peretz.

Smotrich in fact had served for 14 months, at age 28, in the Operations Division of the General Staff, and has said that although his experience was short, it was significant.

“It’s true, I didn’t get to be a combat fighter, and I didn’t run around on the hills,” he said in a Ynet interview last month, “but I was in the nerve center of the army, in the general headquarters. In the places where they sit and manage the army, make the decisions and write the operational plans. I played a very significant role there that I cannot and do not want to detail.”

The division of portfolios is taking a longer time than Netanyahu had expected, as he is receiving pressure from the senior members of his own party not to give away the top ministries. Shas party head Arye Deri is demanding the Finance Ministry, and Netanyahu is reportedly seriously considering offering the Foreign Ministry to one of his top confidantes, former ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.