A pattern has begun to emerge in the reports, leaks and statements by members of the parties involved in the coalition negotiations.
The web of interests are complex, but the following are a number of points that strengthen this assessment.
Who will become Israel's defense, finance minister?
In terms of the Defense Ministry, Netanyahu’s clear interest is that neither Deri nor Smotrich take over, since neither have anywhere near the amount of experience as Likud MKs Yoav Gallant, a former IDF major-general, and Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). If Smotrich is given the position of defense minister, there is also concern he will make decisions that will lead to chaos in the West Bank.
This leaves the Finance Ministry. From an ideological standpoint, Smotrich is the clear choice, as his free-market views are more aligned with Netanyahu than Deri’s. In addition, Deri’s past convictions for bribery, fraud and breach of trust would make his appointment as finance minister look bad. This may even require special legislation, if Deri is barred from serving as a minister due to moral turpitude – and specific legislation to enable him to serve in this position looks even worse.
However, Deri is considered a close ally and personal friend of Netanyahu, and far more agreeable than Smotrich – who may not accede to Netanyahu’s will. This is why, despite the issues above, Netanyahu seems to be leaning toward giving Finance to Deri.
Added to this is the question of who the second largest coalition party is. Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party won 14 seats – but it did so with the addition of two other factions, Otzma Yehudit and Noam, who are negotiating independently. Smotrich thus actually only has seven seats, which is smaller than Deri’s 11.
This is why Deri reportedly was given the first choice, and his announcement on Sunday morning that he would be interested in the Finance Ministry seemingly closed the deal.
However, as the leader of a list that still won 14 seats, this will be a hard pill for Smotrich to swallow. And his aggressive response demonstrated this.
A “source” in RZP said that if Deri received Finance, Smotrich would demand the Defense, Religious Services and Education ministries, as well as detailed coalition agreements ahead of time – contrary to Netanyahu’s wish to speed up the process.
In other words, Smotrich’s answer was that either both he and Deri receive the two senior positions – or neither of them do.
A very realistic option is therefore for Netanyahu to concede to Smotrich that if he will not become finance or defense minister, neither will Deri. The Finance Ministry will thus go to someone from within the Likud – likely either Israel Katz, Nir Barkat or Eli Cohen.
Smotrich and Deri will both be compensated, but will need to hash out an agreement between them over the ministries they both covet, such as Religious Services. This could include, for example, Smotrich conceding the ministry to Deri – on the condition that one of the next chief rabbis will be religious-Zionist, not haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Both chief rabbis’ 10-year terms end in 2023, and a religious-Zionist chief rabbi would be a significant achievement.
Finally, hints of a smear campaign against Smotrich began on Sunday night, when a “source” from the Netanyahu bloc told Army Radio there was a fear that Smotrich would “critically damage the Palestinian Authority even as finance minister, using taxation, tolls, forfeitures and more,” and that “the impact on the Palestinian Authority would be dramatic.”
The smear campaign is likely intended to pressure Smotrich to agree to end the negotiations quickly, and threaten him that if he continues to play hardball, he will pay for it.