September 27, 2023

Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters, November 1, 2022. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90

Eisenkot warns far-right MK’s lack of experience, hardline views will ‘create chaotic environment’; Ex-Shin Bet official says he protested Gaza withdrawal via non-democratic means.

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot warned Friday that appointing Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich as Israel’s next defense minister would be a “gamble” given his hardline views and lack of security experience.

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly weighing several candidates for the senior post, including Smotrich, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and Likud MK Yoav Gallant, who is also the former head of the IDF’s Southern Command.

Eisenkot, who will be sworn in to the Knesset as an MK for the National Unity party on Tuesday, was asked about the idea of having Smotrich serve as defense minister during an interview on Channel 12.

“He lacks the experience and the knowledge,” the former IDF chief began, noting that “Israel faces immense external and internal threats,” which Smotrich might not be suitable for addressing.

“His worldview is very problematic — regarding women in the IDF, the territories, the Palestinian Authority … views that would create a chaotic environment,” Eisenkot said.

Smotrich would likely be one of the most right-wing politicians to take on the post, not just opposing a Palestinian state as some of his predecessors but supporting the annexation of the West Bank and the dissolution of the Defense Ministry’s civil administration which is responsible for civilian policy in the territory. His vision would also deny Palestinians in the West Bank equal rights to Israeli settlers.

Smotrich also opposes ongoing efforts to integrate more women into military combat units.

Former IDF chief of staff and Knesset candidate Gadi Eisenkot unveils the National Unity party’s plan for improving Israel’s internal security, October 18, 2022.

Analysts have noted that Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman was also viewed as a hardliner who did not actualize many of his more radical proposals upon becoming defense minister. However, Smotrich is seen as much more ideologically motivated than Liberman, who’s become more closely aligned with the bloc of parties that supports a two-state solution.

Further expressing his concern regarding Smotrich, Eisenkot told Channel 12 that if the Religious Zionism chairman and his No. 2 Itamar Ben Gvir — a right-wing extremist and the leading candidate to become the next public security minister — “intend to put into practice the things they say, this will be a very difficult period for the State of Israel.”

Eisenkot said that would be concerned about Ben Gvir’s “lack of humility and that he shoots in all directions without understanding the challenges [first].”

Regarding Smotrich as possible defense minister, Eisenkot noted his lack of military experience, which was shortened to allow him to study in yeshiva and then to attend law school.

In 2005, Smotrich was arrested during protests against Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He was held by the Shin Bet security service for three weeks, maintaining his right to remain silent and refusing to cooperate with the investigation. Smotrich has described his arrest as a point of pride.

Dvir Kariv, who was a senior agent in the Shin Bet at the time told Channel 12 Friday that Smotrich was among a group of activists who tried to stop the disengagement from Gaza by non-democratic means.

Israeli authorities never managed to prosecute Smotrich and his collaborators because the Shin Bet didn’t want to have to expose their sources, but Kariv said that “if their plans had been realized, it would have caused chaos in the state.”

Channel 12 also cited the late deputy Shin Bet chief Yitzhak Ilan who called Smotrich a terrorist. The far-right lawmaker threatened to sue Ilan in response.

Smotrich has also described himself as a “proud homophobe” and organized a “beasts parade” in protest of the Jerusalem pride march — both positions for which he has expressed regret more recently. He has also called Reform Judaism, the denomination of the majority of American Jews, a “fake religion.”

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