Will Smotrich back down so that Netanyahu can form a gov't? - opinion

Bezalel Smotrich is still determined to receive one of the Finance or Defense ministries.

 RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party head MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a faction meeting in the Knesset, last week. ‘My guess is that Smotrich will finally back down,’ says the writer (photo credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party head MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a faction meeting in the Knesset, last week. ‘My guess is that Smotrich will finally back down,’ says the writer
(photo credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

This time last week it was clear that Netanyahu would not manage to announce his new Government around the time of the swearing-in of the 25th Knesset, as he had hoped to do. We still seem unlikely to be presented with a new government this week but some progress has been made and Netanyahu has another three or probably five weeks to try.

It now looks almost certain that Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir will land safely in the Ministry of Public Security but there still remains the Gordian Knot concerning where Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich will land. At the time of writing, Smotrich is still determined to receive one of the two main Ministries: the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Defense.

Netanyahu is wary of granting him either of them, whether for fear of the havoc Smotrich is liable to cause in them due to his extremist positions in the fields of economics and defense because Smotrich is unlikely to subordinate to him or because of objections by the professionals in both ministries and by the American administration concerning the Ministry of Defense.

It is interesting that Ben-Gvir’s and Smotrich’s ideological opponents seem much more willing to come to terms with Ben-Gvir than with Smotrich. No doubt, Ben-Gvir’s acceptance, even though it remains reserved, is the result of his claim that he has shed off some of the more objectionable manifestations of extreme racism advocated by his late (murdered) mentor Rabbi Meir Kahane, and his concentration on the problem of dealing more effectively with the most extreme manifestations of the loss of governability, resulting, to a large extent, from the lawlessness of certain sections within the Arab population.

Smotrich making no effort to soften his image

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich at a swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Unlike Ben-Gvir, Smotrich has made no effort to soften his image as a messianic fanatic, extreme right-winger and uncompromising opponent of organized labor. Even when he delivered a surprisingly conciliatory speech towards the prospective opposition during the memorial session in the Knesset two weeks ago, to commemorate Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, he added a backhanded accusation of the General Security Services for allegedly encouraging Yigal Amir to assassinate Rabin, which is a common, totally unsubstantiated accusation made by the extreme religious right in order to prove its own innocence on this count.

Smotrich continues to make extreme demands, which so far Netanyahu seems to have rejected, though the latter could have saved himself a lot of trouble had he not only stated that he planned to keep the Ministries of Finance and Defense in Likud hands but had been more emphatic and had gone to the trouble of designated specific Likud members for those positions.

In fact, if Netanyahu had not insisted on Smotrich and Ben-Gvir running together in a single list in the elections to the 25th Knesset, Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party would probably have barely passed the qualifying threshold on its own, and together with Otzma Yehudit would have gained much fewer than the 14 seats they got together – seats that would probably have gone to the Likud,

Following the elections to the 24th Knesset, it was Smotrich who prevented Netanyahu from forming a government with the support of Ra’am, which led to the formation of the Government of Change. Didn’t Netanyahu realize that Smotrich might once again challenge him to a game of chicken?

There can be three possible ends to this game at this juncture: Smotrich will finally back down, and agree to accept the Ministry of Transport and Road Safety, or the Ministry of Education with additional perks for his party such as the position of deputy minister of defense with responsibilities over Judea and Samaria; Netanyahu will back down and give Smotrich either the Ministry of Finance (even though Shas leader Arye Deri has stated that he wants this ministry), or the Ministry of Defense, under certain limiting conditions; or Netanyahu will try to negotiate with Benny Gantz, over the conditions for the entry of the National Unity Party into the government (even though Gantz claims, at this stage, that there is nothing to talk about). 

Since Ben-Gvir has promised Smotrich that he will not join the government unless the latter joins as well, unless either Smotrich or Netanyahu surrenders, that might be the only option left.

What is the only option that is left?

THOUGH A government made up of the Likud, the ultra-religious parties and the National Unity Party will be much simpler to manage than the all-Right/religious Government Netanyahu is aiming at, there is no doubt that the latter will be much more beneficial to Netanyahu in so far as his trial is concerned and will be much more popular in right-wing circles. However, a Government with the National Unity Party, with or without Religious Zionist and Otzma Yehudit, will reduce the objection of the members of the outgoing Government and make the life of the new government much easier.

My guess is that Smotrich will finally back down. Even within his own political camp, there are those who feel he is acting like a megalomaniac. Soon, he will be heading a parliamentary group made up of six MKs only, and the saying “walk humbly” seems appropriate.

Assuming my guess is right, the rest of the ministerial appointments will be less difficult to perform. At the moment it is assumed that MK Yariv Levin will be appointed to the Ministry of Justice (I believe he is preferable to some of the alternatives suggested); MK Amir Ohana will be appointed speaker of the Knesset (leaving MKs Ofir Akunis and Danny Danon in limbo); MK Arye Deri will settle in the Ministry of Finance, or return to the familiar Ministry of the Interior (Deri has been in and out of the Ministry of the Interior since 1988).

However, it is not to be ruled out that Deri will be prevented from returning to any ministerial post, due to his recent plea bargain over tax invasion offenses, which included a conditional imprisonment sentence; new MK Yitzhak Goldknopf from Agudat Yisrael is designated to become Israel’s new Minister of Construction and Housing. Netanyahu will try to place former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even though many Likud MKs object to such an external appointment.

We shall undoubtedly soon find out who all the ministers and deputy ministers will be. There will certainly be many disappointed Likud MKs – especially amongst the older, Ashkenazi ones, who might fail to be given any ministry. I am also curious what three of the Likud’s firebrands in the 24th Knesset will (or will not) receive: MKs Miri Regev, David Amsalem and Galit Distel-Atbaryan. However, what scares me most is the prospect of Religious Zionist (assuming that it will be part of the government) receiving the Ministry of Education.

Israel’s non-religious education system, which is the only part of the system that at least formally advocates the principles of liberal democracy, is already in a state of serious deterioration, and any efforts to further meddle in the civic studies program, and more aggressive efforts to force religion into the schools, are likely to come across extreme reactions.

One thing is certain: the new government will be the largest government Israel ever had in terms of the number of ministers and deputy ministers serving in it. In other words, it will be another wasteful government, including many superfluous ministries. But we shall wait and see: perhaps there will still be some positive surprises regarding its formation.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has extensively published journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, is published by Routledge.