US pressure on Israel over the choice of defense minister puts Netanyahu in a desperate position

Bezalel Smotrich, a lawmaker and leader of the Religious Zionist Party, speaks during a press conference before the swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Pushed aside by other right-wing figures during his previous term, he remains in power as prime minister- minister Benjamin Netanyahu now depends on religious Zionism to hold onto power. (Coby Wolfe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Even as Israel’s chief of staff heads to Washington for meetings, pressure is mounting behind the scenes between Washington and Jerusalem over who could be Israel’s next defense minister.

Israeli sources say the Biden administration has made it clear to Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now working to form a new coalition government after winning the election this monththat she does not want to see Bezolail Smotrich, an extreme right-wing politician, in this position.

The problem: Smotrich has expressed interest in the role in the past and is holding firm on the claim. Watch reportedly refused position in the foreign ministry this week, which Netanyahu tried to offer as an alternative. And without Smotrich’s support, Netanyahu may not be able to successfully form a coalition government — meaning the man known as Bibi is in a difficult position whether to listen to his most important international ally or listen to the man who may be his most important political allies.

The Biden administration, according to Israeli sources, has sent clear messages that Netanyahu must do whatever it takes to avoid bringing Smotrich into the defense ministry. And one Israeli defense source, speaking to Breaking Defense on condition of anonymity, said that if Smotrich does get the role, the U.S. won’t just give up the fight and move on.

“I don’t think Washington will open a front with Israel without approving the annual foreign military funding that Israel receives,” the source said, but “will use other methods.” [to express dissatisfaction] – and there are many of them.

One way, the source added, is to “put weight” on Israeli requests for special weapons and spare parts for US-made defense systems that are “primarily used by the Air Force.” For example, Israel has requested more access to F-35 subsystems to install various Israeli-made systems, and the US may delay its response; another option would be to slowly approve spare parts or ammunition, which are usually approved quickly. (The source also noted that Israel hopes the U.S. will approve the Arrow-3 for export to Germany, already a difficult matter given the desires of the US domestic industrial base.)

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American concern about Smotrich stems from fears that he will act in a way that will further complicate Israeli-Palestinian relations. Smotrich has expressed his support for expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and has a history of making inflammatory comments about Arabs.

Some of the pressure surrounding Smotrich became public this week when Israel’s Channel 12 informed that Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, met with Netanyahu. Without specifically mentioning Smotrich, Channel 12 reported, Nides noted that “the appointment of a defense minister should be done carefully and thoughtfully, and in a way that takes into account the close relationship between Israel and the United States” (Netanyahu’s cabinet confirmed to Channel 12 that the meeting took place, but did not confirm what was discussed.)

In turn, Smotrich’s party published a statement saying that while it “greatly respects and values ​​our ally the United States,” the Biden administration “must also respect Israeli democracy and not interfere with the establishment of an elected government.”

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli Air Force (IAF) general, military attaché of the Israel Defense Forces in Washington, DC, and head of the IDF’s Office of Military Intelligence, noted that a good relationship of trust between Israel and the US on defense matters is key.

“This relationship is based on fighting the same threats and the same values. If values ​​diverge in the future, it could affect how each other deals with threats,” he told Breaking Defense.

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

Meanwhile, the IDF chief of staff is scheduled to visit Washington next week for what are being called “coordination talks” on joint operations in the Persian Gulf region. Tensions rise behind the scenes: Israel told the US it would not allow the FBI to question Israeli soldiers about the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist who was shot dead while working for Al Jazeera.

Israel’s current defense minister, Benny Gantz, tweeted on Monday that “I have given a statement to US officials that we support [Israeli] soldiers that we will not carry out external investigations and that we will not allow interference in internal investigations.’ US pressure on Israel over the choice of defense minister puts Netanyahu in a desperate position

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