Nov 9, 2022 - World

U.S. concerned about possible Netanyahu defense chief pick

Itamar Ben-Gvir (L), leader of the Jewish Power party, and Bezalel Smotrich (R), leader of the Religious Zionist Party, attend a rally in the Israeli city of Sderot on Oct. 26.

Itamar Ben-Gvir (left), leader of the Jewish Power party, and Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party, attend a rally in Sderot on Oct. 26. Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is closely watching to see who incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu names as Israel's defense minister, with some U.S. officials telling Axios they are concerned a politician from a Jewish supremacist party will be appointed to the post.

Why it matters: The minister of defense is the most powerful position in the Israeli government after the prime minister and manages the security relationship with the United States.

  • The defense minister has the authority over the Israeli military, Israeli arms sales and a huge budget, which includes $4 billion in U.S. military aid every year.
  • The minister is also in charge of Israeli civilian and military policy in the occupied West Bank, including handling security ties with the Palestinian Authority, approving buildings in the Israeli settlements, and responding to settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.
  • "The identity of the person who holds this job in the next Israeli government will have a huge influence on the bilateral relationship with the U.S. and not only when it comes to security," a senior U.S. official told Axios.

State of play: Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Jewish supremacist Religious Zionism list that is part of Netanyahu's bloc, is expected to demand he be appointed defense or finance minister, according to several press reports.

  • U.S officials told Axios they are particularly concerned Smotrich will get the defense minister post. It's unclear whether the Biden administration will work with Smotrich, who has a track record of making racist, anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ comments.
  • Earlier this week, Smotrich shocked many in the Israeli defense establishment when during a speech, he echoed a radical right-wing conspiracy theory by claiming the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service “encouraged” Yigal Amir to carry out the assassination of former Prime Minister Itshak Rabin.

Smotrich supports building settlements and annexing the West Bank, refuses to call settlers who attack Palestinians “terrorists,” and has called for more forceful action by the Israeli military in the West Bank.

  • Sources in Smotrich’s party told Axios he will demand that the coalition agreement include a plan to shut down the Ministry of Defense civilian administration in the West Bank, which is in charge of the Israeli government's civilian services in the territory.
  • He wants to transfer the administration's authorities to other Israeli government ministries, which are in charge of providing services inside the pre-1967 lines. The step could be considered a de facto annexation.

Other possible candidates for the defense minister post include retired Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, who has held senior IDF positions, and Avi Dichter, a former director of the Shin Bet intelligence service. Both are from Netanyahu’s Likud party.

  • Netanyahu could also appoint himself to the position — something several prime ministers have done in the past.

What they're saying: "We respect the Americans and avoid interfering in their domestic democratic and political procedures. We are sure they will act the same way," a Smotrich spokesperson told Axios.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson said it is too early to speculate on the exact composition of the next governing coalition.

  • “We will continue to closely monitor the government formation process. As the president told Netanyahu, ... we look forward to continuing to work with the Israeli government based on a bedrock of shared democratic values and mutual interests," the spokesperson added.

Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a close confidant of Netanyahu, said last week in an interview with the Jewish Institute for National Security (JINSA) podcast that he doesn’t believe the Biden administration will refuse to work with certain ministers in the next Israeli government.

  • “I would be very surprised if the administration decides to blackball ministers in the Israeli government. I think they are going to look carefully at the government guidelines and at their actions. People got elected and they are going to serve in office. They will be judged by their actions," he said.
  • Dermer, who is expected to hold a senior national security post in the next government, said Israel will have to work out with the Biden administration “a modus operandi” to address differences. The Biden administration "will be pleasantly surprised," he stressed.
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