US pressure on Israel over defense minister choice puts Netanyahu in a bind

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Bezalel Smotrich, lawmaker and leader of the Religious Zionist party, speaks during a news conference ahead of a swearing in ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Having alienated other right-wing figures during his previous stints in power, incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now dependent on Religious Zionism to hold power. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Even as Israel’s Chief of the General Staff heads to Washington for meetings, pressure is building behind the scenes between Washington and Jerusalem about who the next Israeli Defense Minister may be.

Israeli sources say the Biden administration has made it clear to Benjamin Netanyahu, currently working to build a new coalition government following this month’s electoral victory, that it does not want to see Bezalael Smotrich, an extreme right-wing politician, be given the job.

The challenge: Smotrich has expressed his interest in the role in the past, and is holding fast to that demand. Smotrich reportedly turned down the foreign ministry job this week, which Netanyahu was trying to offer as an alternative. And without Smotrich’s support, Netanyahu may be unable to successfully form a coalition government — meaning the man known as Bibi is in a bind as to whether to listen to his most important international ally or listen to the man who may be his most important political ally.

The Biden administration, according to Israeli sources, has sent clear messages that Netanyahu should do everything to avoid bringing Smotrich to the defense ministry. And one Israeli defense source, talking with Breaking Defense on condition of anonymity, said that if Smotrich does get the role, the US would not simply give up the fight and move on.

“I don’t think that Washington will open a front with Israel in the way of not approving the annual foreign military funds that Israel gets,” the source said, but “will use other ways [to express dissatisfaction] — and there are many.”

The source added that one way is to “put weights” on Israeli requests for special weapons and for spare parts for its American made defense systems, “mainly used by the Air Force.” For example, Israel has requested greater access to the F-35 subsystems in order to install different Israeli-made systems, and the US could stall its response; another options would be to slow-roll approval of spare parts or ammunition that would normally be approved quickly. (The source also noted that Israeli is hoping the US will approve the Arrow-3 for export to Germany, already a tricky matter given US domestic industrial base desires.)

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American concern around Smotrich stems from fears he will act in a way that will further complicate the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Smotrich has voiced his support for expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and has a history of inflammatory comments about Arabs.

Some of the pressure around Smotrich leaked into the open this week, when Israeli Channel 12 reported that Tom Nides, the US Ambassador to Israel, had met with Netanyahu. Without mentioning Smotrich specifically, Channel 12 said, Nides noted that “appointing the defense minister should be handled with care and deliberation, and in a way that takes into account the intimate relationship between Israel and the U.S.” (Netanyahu’s office confirmed to Channel 12 that the meeting occurred, but did not confirm what was discussed.)

In turn, Smotrich’s party released a statement saying that while it has “a lot of respect and appreciation for our ally the United States,” the Biden administration “should also respect Israeli democracy and not interfere in the establishment of an elected government.”

Amos Yadlin, a former general in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Israel Defense Forces military attaché to Washington, DC, and head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, noted that having a good, trusted relationship between Israel and the US on defense issues is key.

“These relations are based on dealing with identical threats and the same values. If the values will differ in the future, that might affect the mutual way of dealing with threats,” he told Breaking Defense.

The Ministry of Defense refused to comment on the potential next defense minister. The US embassy in Jerusalem did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, the IDF chief of general staff is scheduled to visit Washington next week for what is described as “coordination talks” about joint operations in the Gulf Region. Adding to tensions behind the scene: Israel has notified the US that it will not allow the FBI to interrogate Israeli soldiers about the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot while working for Al Jazeera.

Current Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz tweeted on Monday that “I have given a statement to US representatives that we stand behind [Israeli] soldiers, that we will not comply with an external probe, and that we will not enable intervention to internal investigations.”





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