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Inside story

Entering Knesset, far-rightists want to legalize outposts, fight ‘LGBT agenda’

Religious Zionism will be most extreme party in parliament in decades, with lawmakers who back expelling ‘disloyal’ Arabs and vow to ‘put the Torah first’

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Religious Zionism party chairman Bezalel Smotrich (L) and candidate Itamar Ben Gvir celebrate at the party headquarters in Modi'in on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Religious Zionism party chairman Bezalel Smotrich (L) and candidate Itamar Ben Gvir celebrate at the party headquarters in Modi'in on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

An alliance of three far-right, national religious parties is poised to enter the Knesset as one of the most extreme parties in decades after outperforming predictions in Tuesday’s election.

With nearly 90 percent of the vote counted, Religious Zionism has received six of the Knesset’s 120 seats. That figure could still climb to seven by the time the tally is concluded.

How was the alliance formed?

The slate is headed by National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich, who first won infamy for organizing a so-called “Beast Parade,” to protest the gay pride march in Jerusalem in 2006. His slate split off from Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina ahead of the election, purportedly due to Bennett’s insistence the party remain hyperfocused on addressing the pandemic. Insistent that national religious voters wanted a sectoral party that gave voice to a broad range of issues, Smotrich parted ways with Bennett and began veering hard to the right.

He vowed to “unite the national religious camp” and, until the last minute, refused to merge with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and anti-LGBT Noam parties, knowing that the move would scare away more moderate voters.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — determined to prevent the “wasting” of right-wing votes that could be used to boost parties willing to back him — placed immense pressure on Smotrich to form an extremist alliance that would be more likely to cross the electoral threshold. The premier freed up a spot on the Likud list for National Union MK Ofir Sofer and reportedly made additional commitments to Smotrich that included a number of promised senior positions in Netanyahu’s coalition if a government is formed.

In this undated photo, Bezalel Smotrich, left, appears with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (File; courtesy)

Smotrich then entered negotiations with the right-wing Jewish Home party, with which he had partnered in every election since 2013. However, the sides failed to reach an agreement and Jewish Home ultimately bowed out of the race entirely.

Unlike Bennett, Religious Zionism did not shy away from its willingness to join a government led by Netanyahu, seeing the Likud leader as the only viable option for premier of a right-wing government.

What is its agenda?

Rebranding as Religious Zionism, the party’s appeal was largely limited to the community’s right-wing flank, particularly the Hardal — Haredi leumi (Haredi nationalists). But this proved to be more than enough, with Smotrich’s party receiving nearly half the vote or more in settlements throughout the West Bank such as Beit El, Kedumim, Eli and Ofra.

Religious Zionism also launched an aggressive campaign among the ultra-Orthodox, taking advantage of growing Haredi frustration with their political leadership and scraping together several thousand new voters. In Kfar Chabad for example, the party came in first place, winning nearly 60% of the vote, after winning just 7% in the previous election last March.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Smotrich attributed much of the party’s success to its network of young volunteers who could be spotted around Jerusalem, the West Bank and other national religious hotspots handing out fliers in the weeks leading up to the election.

Religious Zionist party chairman Bezalel Smotrich addresses supporters at the party headquarters in Modi’in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Free from Bennett’s constraints, Smotrich doubled down on issues that he had often been forced to downplay in previous elections.

While some other right-wing lawmakers have supported legalizing wildcat outposts in the West Bank, Religious Zionism placed the issue at the top of its agenda. Candidate Orit Strock told The Times of Israel Tuesday that the party would demand the controversial move be carried out on “day one” of any government it joins.

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir has advocated in favor of expelling “disloyal” Arab citizens and the death penalty for Palestinian terror convicts, but neither of those issues appeared at the forefront of the Religious Zionism campaign.

Religious Zionist Party member Itamar Ben Gvir addresses supporters at the party headquarters in Modi’in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

With Yamina focusing more on the economy, Religious Zionism avoided highlighting the issue on the campaign trail. Like Bennett, though, Smotrich backs conservative, free-market economic policies.

Where the two parties more noticeably diverge are on social matters and on issues of religion and state.

Religious Zionism campaigned aggressively on “strengthening the family construct,” which most opponents understood to be a euphemism for a slew of anti-LGBT stances. Until last week, however, when he told Army Radio that he opposes “LGBT culture” and compared gay marriage to incest, Smotrich had managed to avoid making headlines on the issue.

His new partners from Otzma Yehudit and Noam were less discreet.

Ben Gvir has attended annual protests heckling Jerusalem Pride Parade participants and the Noam party burst out with a series of provocative highway billboards and video ads with the slogan “Israel chooses to be normal.” The party claims that the LGBT community has “forced its agenda” on the rest of Israeli society, which believes in a “normal” (heteronormative) family structure. It also likened LGBT and Reform Jews to the Nazis.

In addition to opposing gay marriage and gay parents adopting children via surrogacy, the party on its platform comes out against single women having children.

It also vows to promote legislation that would require any victim of sexual assault to sign a waiver pledging that they are telling the truth before they’re allowed to file a police complaint. The party also backs creating a public registry of those who have filed false complaints, a position forcefully condemned by advocates for sex abuse victims.

Religious Zionist Party member Orit Strock seen at the party headquarters in Modi’in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The party also has regularly vowed to “strengthen the Jewish character of the state,” including by solidifying the Orthodox Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious life in Israel and aggressively opposing the expansion of religious rights to Reform and Conservative Jews.

“We will put the Torah first,” Smotrich said in his Tuesday speech following the exit polls. “Blessed are you Lord our God, the good and the benevolent.”

Several candidates have also come out against military service for women in the IDF, and Religious Zionism No. 6 candidate and Noam party chairman Avi Maoz told the Makor Rishon newspaper earlier this month that women’s greatest strength is to get married and have children.

Critics say the party’s rise will also lead to increased separation between men and women in the public sphere.

The gender divide was on full display at the party headquarters on Tuesday as supporters celebrated the exit poll results showing it would enter parliament. Of the hundreds present, the overwhelming majority were men. The party’s two female candidates slated to enter Knesset danced in celebration with a handful of female party activists behind tall dividing walls on the side of the room, while the hundreds of male supporters took over the main ballroom’s dance floor.

Who’s who?

While he’s not chairman, the No. 3 candidate Ben Gvir is arguably the party’s most recognizable face.

Ben Gvir was born into a secular family in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion, but as a teenager became active in the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach movement, which is today blacklisted in both Israel and the US. He enjoyed brief notoriety from a TV interview in which he proudly held up an ornament that he managed to rip off former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac.

Itamar Ben Gvir at a polling station in Ofakim during the Knesset election, March 23, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The ultra-nationalist went on to obtain a law degree and has since made a practice of representing Jewish terror suspects, while launching his nascent political career.

In each of the past four election campaigns, Netanyahu has attempted to broker deals to merge Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit with other far-right factions. In the run-up to the April 2019 vote, Netanyahu engineered a deal for Otzma Yehudit to join the Union of Right Wing Parties, which placed Ben Gvir sixth on their slate. Netanyahu’s move drew rebuke from nearly every major Jewish organization including those that rarely comment on Israeli politics. The party won five seats, the closest Ben Gvir would come to entering the Knesset, until now.

Poised to become a Knesset member in just two weeks, Ben Gvir has vowed to act in parliament on behalf of IDF soldiers who he claims are afraid to shoot at Palestinians throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails because they’re worried about the legal repercussions. He also said Tuesday that he would demand the position of minister of defense of the Negev and the Galilee, claiming residents routinely suffer from violence by unchallenged Arab gangs.

Religious Zionist Party member Itamar Ben Gvir addresses supporters at the party headquarters in Modi’in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

But despite his self-description as a disciple of Kahane, Ben Gvir has avoided speaking out against LGBT Israelis with the same extremist rhetoric employed by Noam candidates and has said he would still love his child if they came out as gay.

The ideological differences between the three parties that make up Religious Zionism are rather minimal, but their alliance remains a “technical bloc,” which can be broken if Netanyahu or any other party leader vetoes Noam’s Maoz or Ben Gvir as beyond the pale for their coalition.

Netanyahu vowed publicly ahead of the election not to give Ben Gvir a ministerial post, but Religious Zionism officials told The Times of Israel that the same message was not conveyed during their direct negotiations.

Noam party chairman Avi Maoz. (Noam Party)

Joining Smotrich, Ben Gvir and Maoz in the Knesset will be Michal Waldiger. The No. 2 candidate until recently served as the director of the Bat Ami organization, which places religious Zionist teen girls in national service programs throughout the country.

A more prominent name on the list is Simcha Rothman, a conservative activist and legal adviser for the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy. The No. 4 candidate was one of the first voices in favor of a Supreme Court override clause to limit the power of the judiciary.

Religious Zionist Party member Simcha Rothman seen at the party headquarters in Modi’in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Rothman hopes to lead the party’s campaign to reform the judiciary and has been outspoken along with other Religious Party candidates regarding the conduct of the attorney general and the state prosecutor in the Netanyahu corruption trial.

At No. 5 is former MK and veteran settler activist Orit Strock. She told The Times of Israel that initial election results show that there is a broad section of the public that is hungry for a party that doesn’t whitewash its views and is unabashedly supportive of the Jewish people’s right to the entire land of Israel.

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