Bennett says his support for gay rights doesn’t mean he’ll back laws for them

Development comes after fellow Yamina MK Smotrich voices opposition; remark by religious politician, who has made dramatic poll gains, is slammed as a ‘shame’ by LGBT rights group

Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the media in Ariel, in the West Bank, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the media in Ariel, in the West Bank, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing religious Yamina party, on Tuesday scaled back his recent remarks in favor of equal civil rights for LGBT people, after criticism from his political partner Bezalel Smotrich.

Yamina is an alliance of two parties: Bennett’s New Right and Smotrich’s National Union. While New Right has sought to distance itself from a religious image, National Union is a standard-bearer of Israel’s national-religious camp.

Bennett, during an Instagram interview last week, said he believed in “live and let live, and in respect for every person; and for LGBT people to fully have all the civil rights a straight person in Israel has.”

But Speaking with Army Radio Tuesday, Bennett said his declared support for equal rights didn’t mean he will actually take action to bring about such equality.

“I didn’t say we will advance any law,” he said. “I said I respect the LGBT and that they deserve all of the civil rights.”

Questioned on the matter during a Channel 13 interview Monday, Smotrich had made clear his faction of the party would not vote in favor of legislation enshrining such rights.

“There have been such votes, we opposed. If there will be [future votes] we will continue to oppose, because I believe in a Jewish state, not just as folklore and as a label but in practical content,” Smotrich said. “The status quo that has allowed us to live here together for 70 years also includes the fact that marriage and divorce in Israel is done according to Jewish religion.”

He added: “Yamina is comprised of two parties, that’s not new… We have differences on issues such as this but we also have a huge amount in common and we focus mainly on that.”

Hila Peer, director of Aguda — The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, said that Bennett’s “spin” could now be buried.

“Bennett, respect is not sufficient to get married, have families and defend LGBT youth from bullying,” she said. “Thank you, but nice words won’t grant us equal rights. It is a shame that Bennett chooses to continue partnering with extremists who don’t reflect the opinion of most Israelis, who support LGBT rights.”

then-transportation minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at an awards ceremony honoring far-right rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg in Givat Shmuel, on August 8, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Yamina has soared in polls in recent months since moving from the coalition to the opposition in the wake of the March elections — taking the number 2 spot behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud amid growing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and polling in the low twenties in projected Knesset seats (the party currently has just five).

Bennett has sought to portray himself as the level-headed, responsible adult in the room in the face of the coalition’s internal bickering. And he has done his best to establish Yamina as a party with nationalist, traditional roots but a forward-facing agenda.

But his ally Smotrich has often poked holes in those efforts, occasionally making controversial statements on Judaism’s place in a democratic Israeli society that could deter more moderate voters.

Last year he said on several occasions that Israel should be governed by religious law, that he wishes to “restore the Torah justice system” and that the country should aspire to run itself as “in the days of King David.”

Such comments were strongly repudiated by numerous politicians, including Netanyahu.

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