Hardline lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich on Monday evening won the leadership election for the National Union, currently a sub-faction of the Jewish Home party, ousting veteran incumbent Uri Ariel, who had vowed to drop out of politics if he did not retain his position.
The race was said to represent a choice between an older, establishment guard in Ariel and a younger, anti-establishment activist generation represented by Smotrich.
The final results showed a landslide 83-40 vote victory for Smotrich.
The vote comes ahead of a Wednesday Jewish Home conference in which party representatives will decide on whether to once again run on a joint ticket with the National Union, itself is an amalgamation of several hard-right factions. Smotrich is said to be interested in leading the entire party, not just National Union, to April’s elections.
“Tonight, here in Jerusalem, we say in a clear voice: Religious Zionism is the most influential movement in the State of Israel! And it will continue (to influence) energetically,” Smotrich declared in his victory speech.
Smotrich, a co-founder of of the right-wing NGO Regavim, which targets illegal construction by non-Jews in Israel and the West Bank, entered the Knesset in 2015 and quickly became known for his uncompromising right-wing views and controversial remarks.
During his four years in the Knesset, he has made headlines for encouraging draft-dodging in protest of the IDF’s “radical feminist” agenda, for comparing the evacuation of an illegal settlement outpost to a “brutal rape,” and for claiming that “illiterate” Arabs are only granted university admission thanks to affirmative action. He has also called himself a “proud homophobe,” called for segregated Jewish-Arab maternity wards in hospitals, and was involved in organizing an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem in response to the city’s annual Gay Pride parade.
In the lead-up to the 2005 Gaza disengagement, Smotrich was arrested and held by the Shin Bet security service for three weeks on suspicion that he was planning to block major traffic arteries and damage infrastructure to prevent the withdrawal. He was part of a cell of five people who were caught allegedly planning an attack with 700 liters of gasoline, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported. He was released without any charges being brought.
In recent years, the 38-year-old has closely aligned himself with a group of younger settler leaders led by Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan and Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz, who have been more vocal in their criticism of Netanyahu and the right-wing government than many of their colleagues. For his part, Ariel was seen to be more aligned with the establishment Yesha settlement umbrella council, which has been more careful to criticize the government publicly.
Ariel, who is now expected to retire from national politics after the April election, has served as National Union chairman since 2012 and has been in the Knesset since 2001. The agriculture minister announced that if he does not win the leadership race, he would retire from the Knesset altogether. Smotrich is a newer face to the faction, having been elected for the first time in the most recent parliamentary elections. He has vowed to broaden the national religious camp by pursuing new alliances within the movement.
Possible partners could be Eli Yishai, whose far-right Yachad party failed to pass the electoral threshold in the 2015 parliamentary elections, or the Otzma Yehudit party, led by former National Union MK Michael Ben Ari, along with far-right activists Itamar Ben Gvir, Benzi Gopstein, and Baruch Marzel.
National Union members also voted for its Knesset list Monday with 10 candidates vying for realistic placements, including former Jewish Home MK Orit Strock and National Union secretary general Ofir Sofer. Only the top two spots on the faction’s list made it into the Knesset after the 2015 elections — Ariel and Smotrich.
The balloting took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. The vote was moved up after Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced last month that they would be leaving the Jewish Home party and launching the New Right, leaving the national religious amalgamation scrambling for new leadership.
Delivering his victory speech Monday evening, Smotrich included veiled criticism of Bennett and Shaked. “There are those who have recently tried to dwarf us and claim that religious Zionism has ended. That it has lost its ability to influence and that in order to lead and influence (in Israel), one must abandon it.”
The education and justice ministers made a comparable argument to explain their decision to bolt Jewish Home, arguing that the national religious camp’s rabbinical leaders were preventing them from acting more freely to broaden appeal.
Nonetheless, Bennett and Shaked’s New Right released a statement congratulating Smotrich on his victory, calling him “a man of ideology and action.”
“Now, each in his own way will work to increase the right-wing bloc for the sake of the future of the state and the totality of the land,” the party said.