Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Religious Zionism Chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich arrives to the coalition talks in Jerusalem, November 9, 2022.

After completing the required round of consultations with all incoming Knesset factions, President Isaac Herzog summoned Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu to accept the task of forming the next Israeli government. According to Basic Law: Government, from the moment the President assigns him the task, Netanyahu will have 28 days to form a new government. Should an extension be required, the President has the authority to grant an extension of up to 14 additional days according to the law.

Netanyahu, who last week said he expected to introduce his new government as early as this Wednesday, has already changed his mind, according to sources in the Likud. The reason is that while his dealing with his two Haredi past and future coalition partners, United Torah Judaism and Shas, has been smooth, his second-largest coalition partner, Religious Zionism/Otzma Yehudit, has proven to be a tougher nut to crack for Israel’s most experienced PM ever.

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Religious Zionism claims that the Likud is dragging its feet in the negotiations with them and demand that the deals be anchored in spelled-out coalition agreements, rather than Netanyahu’s preference, general promises he may or may not keep. The UTJ also insists on extensive, written agreements. After watching Netanyahu’s modus operandi for so many years, his partners want everything in writing, with lots of signatures.

From his first day in office, Netanyahu has treated his national religious partners as second-class citizens, showing open contempt to their members––some of whom, notably Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked––ran his 2009 campaign to return from oblivion to victory. He is reputed to have said that the national religious have “a big heart and a small brain,” and he never missed an opportunity to humiliate them in public. So much so, that Bennett once said, “Netanyahu wants to bring us back to being his battered children.”

Religious Zionism, what’s left of the historic HaBayit HaYehudi, claims that Netanyahu is trying to create a gap between them and Otzma Yehudit, the old divide and conquer. Netanyahu spend hours negotiating with Ben Gvir last Friday – zero time with Smotrich.

In 2013, Netanyahu played the same game with Bennett and Shaked, pushing off a coalition deal with their 12-seat HaBayit HaYehudi party while giving the pro-two-state Tzipi Livni the Justice Ministry. But his tactics came back to bite him, when Yair Lapid, whom Netanyahu wanted, and Bennett, whom Netanyahu loathed, formed a “brotherly pact,” forcing him to take both or neither.

This time around, Netanyahu is like a three-card-Monte con artist who spent too long on the same street corner. Folks around him get the idea and their bets are getting better. But unlike the guy on the street corner, Bibi can’t grab the money and run. This is his last chance to be the prime minister and he can’t do it without Smotrich and Ben Gvir. Unlike his two young partners, who stand to bite off even more voters out of the old and stayed Likud party in a sixth election – this may be Bibi’s final curtain call. He can’t risk another stint in the opposition while Lapid remains the caretaker PM. And so, despite appearances to the contrary, Smotrich and Ben Gvir hold all the cards, all they have to do is not trip on each other’s feet.

As of Sunday morning, it appears that Ben Gvir will be the next Internal Security Minister, ruling over the police, prisons, fire and rescue, witness protection, community security, firearm registration, urban policing, and protection of children on the Internet. He is expected to demand an annual addition of NIS 6 billion ($1.8 billion) to the ministry’s budget, which will mostly go to pay raises to police officers and recruitment of new officers, reportedly with high school education. Speaking with a number of people in the police and fire services, we’ve discovered that they and their co-workers want Ben-Gvir in the job.

Smotrich has announced that he wants either the Finance or Defense ministries, both of which Netanyahu is reluctant to give him, mostly because Smotrich turned out to be a gifted administrator when he ran Netanyahu’s Transport Ministry.

In fact, Israeli media reported recently that the civil servants at Finance were all in favor of giving the job to Smotrich, whom they hope would help them institute the free-market reforms they’ve been fighting for. The idea that Netanyahu would deposit the finance ministry in the hands of Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, with two separate convictions on embezzlement (1999) and tax evasion (2022), is very much like appointing the cat to supervise the cream.

The last thing Netanyahu wants is Bezalel Smotrich at his side as Defense Minister, because, like Ben Gvir, he stands to revitalize the ministry and the IDF – which is about to receive its first chief of staff with a religious-Zionist background, General Hertzi Halevi.

If Ben Gvir is expected to bring peace to Israel’s violent streets and highways with a fiercer, larger police force, Smotrich will bring peace to Judea and Samaria by either dismantling the anti-settlers IDF Civil Administration or by radically changing its focus to encourage Jewish life in the liberated territories and blocking the efforts of the Palestinian Authority and the European Union to take over Area C, the Israeli area.

Netanyahu is well aware that he could be cultivating his ultimate replacement by letting Smotrich excel in either of the two top jobs, and he is determined to stop this at the root by denying him access to either office. Let’s pray that Smotrich and Ben Gvir know better than to fall prey to these tactics.

One piece of evidence showing these two are in it to win it was a report Sunday morning that Ben Gvir just added a new demand: he wants to strike Reform-converted diaspora Jews from the list of individuals qualified for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. And he’s enlisting the support of the Haredi parties, which is ingenious, because how can they not support it, and at the same time shake up Netanyahu’s tree just the right amount?

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.