Will Betzalel Smotrich replace Benny Gantz as Defense Minister? -analysis

With polls indicating that the far-right is grabbing more votes, extremists may get critical portfolios including that of defense. 

 RELIGIOUS ZIONIST PARTY head MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks as opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu looks on at an opposition meeting in the Knesset. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
RELIGIOUS ZIONIST PARTY head MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks as opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu looks on at an opposition meeting in the Knesset.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In less than 24 hours, Israelis will be at the polls – again. For the fifth time in less than three years.

With polls indicating that the far-right is grabbing more and more votes, racist extremists may get critical portfolios – including that of defense.

Terrorism on the ballot

The election comes as terror attacks continue to injure and claim the lives of Israelis.

According to the Shin Bet internal security service, there have been 2,204 terror attacks in the past year that claimed the lives of 25 people, including one on Saturday night in Hebron.

It’s the highest number since 2015 when the so-called “Knife Intifada” claimed 29 lives in 2,558 attacks. And that was for the whole year; with two months left in this year, 2022 might very well exceed that.

 Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at The Jerusalem Post conference. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at The Jerusalem Post conference. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Politicians have claimed that the government under Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz has “failed” Israelis and that terror has run rampant under their leadership.

This election round has given rise to players such as Religious Zionist Party chairman Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the US-born, far-right, anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane and his fascist Kach Party.

Political hijacking of security

The political hijacking of the fight against terrorism in the West Bank comes at a price.

While Palestinian terrorism has risen significantly, so has Jewish terrorism at the hands of far-right settlers, who openly support Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as they attack Palestinians and even IDF troops.

Opinion polls have widely shown that Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit will become the third-largest faction in the Knesset following the elections.

Should Likud under opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu retake power, the far-right led by these two MKs is expected to play a major role.

As part of that, they have demanded the key portfolios of defense, justice, transportation and finance.

Under Netanyahu, Israel repeatedly went to war with Hamas, which fired thousands of rockets at the South, and launched thousands of terror attacks inside the Green Line and West Bank.

The fact that Israel had additional rounds of conflict with Gaza terror groups under Lapid and former PM Naftali Bennett is not due to their policies, but to issues inherent to the region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many of which stem from Netanyahu’s governments.

Credit has to be given where credit is due. Under Bennett and Lapid, with Gantz as defense minister, the violence was shorter than in the past – partly because going to war isn’t cheap, not financially and not in terms of human life.

Despite cries by the far Right to embark on a large-scale military operation in the West Bank similar to Defensive Shield in 2005, it’s not going to happen.

The IDF, Israel Police and Shin Bet internal security agency have been working day and night against Palestinian terrorism, deep inside the casbahs of Jenin and Nablus.

Getting terrorism under control, like in 2015, takes time, resources and working with Palestinian Authority Security Forces, whether we like it or not – and whether they do a good job or not.

Defense establishment concerns

The defense establishment understands that, and sources have told The Jerusalem Post of their concerns should Smotrich become defense minister.

LIKE BEN-GVIR, Smotrich’s racism is no secret. He’s said that the biggest security threat to Israel “is the threat at home from nationalist elements among Arab Israelis,” and that it was a “mistake that [former prime minister David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw [them] out in 1948.”

Smotrich is known for his inflammatory comments, but he is not known for his military service. Maybe his wish to become defense minister is one of those outlandish comments.

The RZP leader only served for 14 months in the IDF’s operations division after he was conscripted at 28 years old. Although he never took part in combat, Smotrich has said that he knows full well the intricacies of the IDF and how the military is managed and decisions are made.

Does he though? Does Smotrich know how a war is won? Does he know how to comfort Druze and Bedouin families if they lose a child while serving in the IDF without making racist comments?

Smotrich’s views on gender orientation are equally concerning.

Will he allow LGBTQ or transgender soldiers to continue their service in a respectful fashion? Will he attempt to change the law that obligates the IDF to fund both hormonal treatment and sex reassignment surgery while in uniform?

The new defense minister will also be responsible for managing and growing defense ties with countries around the world.

Some of these ties are with countries that Israel has only recently normalized relations and they will likely not be as open to working with a far-right government led by legislators who are virulently anti-Arab.

And while you don’t need to have been a chief of staff to hold that position and sit on the 14th floor of the Kirya’s Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, it’s only logical to think that the person serving as defense minister served his or her full military service.

Whoever ends up assuming the defense portfolio will also be working with the IDF’s new Chief of Staff Hertzi Halevy.

Whoever ends up assuming the defense portfolio will be working with the IDF’s new Chief of Staff, Hertzl Halevy. 

Halevy has been praised by Lapid, Gantz and outgoing chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi as a dedicated and professional officer.

But he is also known to be an officer who is not scared to voice his opinions – which all won’t be in sync with those of Smotrich, to say the least.

In a recent article in al-Monitor, Ben Caspit wrote that Halevy “is one of a handful of military officers who have dared to put forth positions contradicting those of the political echelon that appoints them and refused to blindly obey political whims.”

It’s expected that Halevi will deal with the number of threats facing Israel in a pragmatic way and will not bow to political pressure.

The job won’t be easy.