Dramatic rise of Smotrich and Ben Gvir fueled by voters willing to ‘hold their nose’

Experts and voters say Religious Zionism doubled support by finding people worried about security and willing to ignore more extreme stances, given lack of right-wing options

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Otzma Yehudit chief MK Itamar Ben Gvir makes a campaign stop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, October 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit chief MK Itamar Ben Gvir makes a campaign stop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, October 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

From March 2021 to November 2022, the far-right alliance of Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit managed to more than double its support, from just over 225,000 votes in March 2021 to more than 516,000 votes last week.

Its dramatic rise, catapulting it from the ninth largest party last year to third largest this year, and projected ascension to power alongside right-wing Likud and Haredi parties, has caused voices opposed to its political bloc to bewail the downfall of the country.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday said the country is not over, but called the fight for the preservation of democracy “the war of our time,” while Otzma Yehudit’s head Itamar Ben Gvir wrote a rare opinion piece on Tuesday to calm down political left-wingers worried that “the state is gone.”

Including the tiny Noam party, the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit list touts a selection of ideologies that are ultranationalist, preferencing Jews over Arabs, religiously conservative and anti-LGBT. Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit’s leaders have both clashed with security forces who counter settler extremism, causing discomfort with some of their future coalition partners — including former Shin Bet head and Likud MK Avi Dichter — who squirm at some of the far-right leaders’ statements against the agency.

Many of the party’s voters were likely drawn in by its fiery rhetoric and hard-right stances, including banning pride parades and reinstituting conversion therapy, reining in the Supreme Court, advancing bills to effectively cancel Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trials, segregating Arab-Jewish maternity wards, expelling “disloyal” Israelis, deporting Arab citizens who attack Israeli soldiers and relaxing the security forces’ open-fire rules.

But others who cast ballots for the list did not necessarily endorse those positions, analysts and voters themselves say, but were attracted to the party as the only remaining viable right-wing flagship or by its promises to increase internal security, reassert governance over under-policed areas, as well as to pass sweeping judicial reforms.

The two-headed nature of the joint slate managed to draw voters interested in the party for separate, practical reasons, say experts. Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich swept up support by being the best option available for national religious voters without another party; Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir attracted a varied crowd of Israelis concerned about internal security amid Arab-Jewish clashes and a lingering terror wave.

Supporters of the Otzma Yehudit party celebrate as initial election exit polls are announced, at the party’s campaign headquarters, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I don’t think that the results testify that the Israeli Jewish public adopted Kahane,” said Yair Sheleg, national religious affairs expert with the Shalom Hartman Institute, referring to the late racist and eventually banned politician Meir Kahane, whose stances have been echoed by Ben Gvir, a former adherent.

Any port in a storm

In May 2021, violence broke out between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens across several mixed cities in parallel to an ongoing conflict with the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip. While Israel fights routinely in the West Bank, Gaza and its borders, violence between Jews and Arabs within its proper borders stunned Israelis.

While the riots ended, a wave of terror attacks in early 2022, which has persisted at a low boil, has created “a feeling that there is an Arab public within Israel that wants to hurt Jews, something that wasn’t felt since October 2000,” when the Second Intifada began, said Sheleg.

Avi Korkas examines the damage to a municipality office that was torched in a night of violence between Arab Israeli protesters and Israel Police in the city of Lod, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

National religious political expert Asher Cohen, an associate professor at Bar Ilan University, called the May 2021 riots “the biggest springboard” for Otzma Yehudit and its leader Ben Gvir.

“It’s already not in the territories, it’s here, in Lod, in Ramle, in Acre,” cities well within Israel’s sovereign borders. “People went into shock,” he said.

Ben Gvir supporters themselves echo this analysis. Yaakov Matzlavi, 47, a shopkeeper and resident in Ramle, said most of his family shifted their vote to Ben Gvir “not because of ideology, but because of Operation Guardian of the Walls.” The official Israeli name for its conflict with Gaza that occurred at the same time as the rioting.

Eliav Kakun, 38, also from Ramle, said that the riots and pervasive tension with segments of Arab society motivated him to switch his vote from Mizrahi Haredi party Shas to support Otzma Yehudit.

“We don’t want them to take the state,” Kakun said, referring to what he called “bad Arabs.” He made his comments just out of earshot of neighboring “Arab friends.”

Despite Ben Gvir having had no public administrative track record or even military experience — he was rejected from the army over his ultranationalist views and activities as a teenager — Kakun and other Ben Gvir voters in Ramle said it was important to “give the person a chance, to see what he can do.”

Cohen argued that the outgoing government – sworn in June 2021 – did not adequately address security concerns for these voters.

“Once the mainstream failed to answer the most pressing problems,” Cohen said, “people go to search for answers elsewhere.”

This phenomenon, Cohen said, parallels a far-right shift among European voters who brought fringe parties in Sweden, Italy and France into the limelight, though in those cases voters were reacting against immigrants and progressive multiculturalism.

Asher Cohen, associate professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University (Itai Schremer)

Ben Gvir has carefully cultivated a perception of being tough on security and gives his voters a sense that “he will bring law and order,” said Moshe Hellinger, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

In his bid to become police minister, Ben Gvir published a 10-point platform for increasing internal security on the election’s eve, including loosening live fire restrictions against Palestinian rioters and stone throwers, broadening immunity for security service personnel and issuing personal weapons for graduates of combat-rated military units.

Just before the election results were finalized on Thursday, Ben Gvir reacted to a terror-motivated stabbing in Jerusalem by issuing a statement that “it’s time to back the soldiers and the police, to restore security to the streets, it’s time to put security in order in the country, it’s time to show who is the master of the house here, it’s time for a terrorist who goes out to carry out an attack to be eliminated!”

Two weeks before the election, he had responded to unrest in Jerusalem’s flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood by brandishing a handgun on its streets, after tweeting he was going in to protect Jews, and was filmed urging the Border Police officers who were protecting him to open fire on nearby Arab stone-throwers.

Right-wing Israelis told The Times of Israel that they backed his tougher stances on security even when they created unequal policies for Jews and Arabs.

Ramle small business owner David Tzarfaty, 62, said he backed Ben Gvir’s calls to deport Arab citizens and Palestinians who attack Israeli soldiers, despite voting Likud in the end.

“We really need to expel terrorists from Israel,” he said.

“The situation with the Arabs really isn’t comfortable here,” Tzarfaty added, gesturing around his shop, near Ramle’s open-air market. He said he no longer lingers during the evening hours. “We expect Ben Gvir to bring back security.”

But some of the security-minded voters also expressed discomfort with other parts of the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit agenda, especially its ultra-conservative social and religious policies.

Kakun disagreed with the party’s position against LGBT rights in particular. “It’s their right” to choose their lifestyle and he doesn’t want to see the community hurt, he said.

Nonetheless, he voted for a list whose representatives said they would ban pride parades and reinstate banned conversation therapy. “If we want to make a change, then we might have to compromise,” he said.

Michael Abutbol, 65, said he voted in the past for Likud but switched this time to Otzma Yehudit in a nod to the security situation. The Ramle market stall owner dismissed fears about suppression of rights for minorities, women and homosexuals should the far-right party find itself in power.

“It’s all nonsense, it’ll all work out in the end,” Abutbol said.

Widening the audience

By focusing on security, Ben Gvir managed to attract voters from outside the national religious community.

“Ben Gvir turns to other audiences, varied ones. He turns to secular, to traditional, to religious, to Mizrahim, to Ashkenazim,” assessed Hellinger. “He didn’t come to work just with religious Zionists, although he has a lot of supporters within religious Zionism who raise him up as a hero.”

Ahead of the elections, analysts predicted that extra support for Ben Gvir would come from the ultra-Orthodox community. But Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism also gained strength, winning a combined 18 seats.

An analysis of voting trends shows Religious Zionism votes coming from all over the country, including ballot boxes at left-leaning kibbutzes.

“Most of the votes that Ben Gvir got outside of Religious Zionism came more from traditional Jews, settlements, Mizrahim and even secular people who were excited about him,” said Hellinger.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party tours the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 22, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As a result of him drawing in these new communities to the shared party, Hellinger believes that “at least 60%” of Religious Zionism’s voters were backing Ben Gvir, a wild turn for a politician who only garnered 0.42% of the national vote when Otzma Yehudit was shunned by other parties and ran independently in 2020.

Cohen echoed the assessment, predicting that post-election analysis will indicate that Smotrich brings “4 to 6 [seats], that’s it. The rest are all Ben Gvir.”

“It’s not Smotrich who brought the 14 seats,” he said.

Rallying refugees from the right

What Smotrich did bring to the table was a home for moderate national religious voters concerned with security and how the country is run but facing a voting identity crisis, analysts say.

With Yamina done for, Jewish Home led by the no-longer-trusted Ayelet Shaked and New Hope part of a center-left alliance, some felt they had little choice but to “hold their nose” and vote for Smotrich, as one voter told The Times of Israel she planned to do before the election.

“There was a year-long discussion about the liberal religious, that they can’t vote for Smotrich because he’s religiously extreme and they can’t vote for Ben Gvir because he’s not statesmanlike,” Cohen said. “But in the end, even the liberal religious need to decide what’s the most important issue to them,” with “the burning issues today being security, governance, judicial reform.”

Cohen added that while many moderate or liberal religious voters would have preferred a party more closely aligned with their values, which include finishing reforms advocated by former religious affairs minister Matan Kahana, whose New Hope became part of National Unity, but in the end, the results show.

Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich waves an Israeli flag at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Smotrich mopped up voters who were “frustrated” with former right-wing party Yamina, which hemorrhaged support because its then-leader Naftali Bennett joined a big tent coalition with right, center, left-wing and an Arab party in June 2021, to become prime minister.

Shaked’s new-old Jewish Home party failed to cross the threshold into Knesset, garnering only just over 1% of the November 1 vote.

The “central issue was not that they went with the left, but that they took the prime minister position by doing so,” Sheleg said. “The Bennett story made people think that he sold his ideology to be prime minister,” in contrast to right-wing politicians from New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu, who joined the coalition out of opposition to Netanyahu continuing to hold onto power.

As a consequence of their dismay at Bennett, “a lot of people voted for the [Religious Zionism] party out of lack of choice,” Sheleg said.

Efrat, a relatively moderate, mostly religious large West Bank settlement, provides a case in point. On Tuesday, 48% of the nearly 5,800 votes cast there went to Religious Zionism. In 2021, Yamina was the biggest vote-getter there, with 43%, followed by Religious Zionism with 26%.

FILE – A general view shows the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat on March 10, 2022. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

“This means that there are still a lot of people within the Efrat voting public for whom Smotrich doesn’t express their religious or even political-diplomatic choice,” Sheleg said.

A third factor pushing up the joint party’s numbers, and what Cohen said could be the most consequential, is that Likud ran a tireless campaign to increase right-wing voter turnout and Religious Zionism reaped the rewards.

“Netanyahu understood that the Likud’s biggest problem was voter turnout. Last time, in 2021, there was a 9% turnout gap between left-wing and Likud areas,” he said.

Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu at a Ramat Gan election event in his campaign bus, September 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

“For two months he went around” to drum up the vote, traveling the country to address campaign rallies in an air-conditioned, bulletproof glass-paneled van.

Voters rallied in response, driving Israel to 71.3% voter turnout, its highest since 2015.

And, Cohen said, many of those right-wing voters” went out and voted for Ben Gvir.”

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