How Bezalel Smotrich rode unfiltered radicalism and unforgiving politics to power

The Religious Zionism leader’s political ascent has been marked by extreme positions from the start. He now stands on the cusp of having the ability to realize his far-right vision

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Religious Zionist head Bezalel Smotrich attends a discussion in the Israeli parliament on the TV-show "Shtula" (Double agent), airing on Israeli TV,  November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionist head Bezalel Smotrich attends a discussion in the Israeli parliament on the TV-show "Shtula" (Double agent), airing on Israeli TV, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A little over a decade ago, as the 2009 election campaign gathered pace, a little-known but radical right-wing activist secured the respectable, albeit unrealistic, ninth spot on the electoral list of the ultra-nationalist and religiously hardline National Union party.

A few days shy of his 29th birthday, Bezalel Smotrich was making his first foray into frontline Israeli politics.

That Knesset bid, which failed, came just four years after he was arrested by the Shin Bet on suspicion of organizing violent Jewish nationalist activity.

Fast forward to today and Smotrich, as head of the Religious Zionist party, now looks set to become one of the most zealous ideologues in an uncompromisingly right-wing, religious government.

The former youth radical already has a stint as transportation minister and a spot on the high-level security cabinet under his belt. But his central role as a senior member of prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s likely governing coalition puts him in line for even more important positions, giving him enormous influence over the country and its future.

And there is little to show that his far-right positions and activism have moderated as his power has grown.

Early radicalism

Smotrich has been a radical from the very outset of his career in right-wing activism and politics. Most notoriously, he was arrested by the Shin Bet’s division for suspected Jewish terrorism during the disengagement from Gaza.

Shortly before the August 2005 operation to remove Jewish settlers from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four more in the West Bank, Smotrich and four other activists were detained and found to be in possession of 700 liters of gasoline and oil.

He was held by the Shin Bet for three weeks but never charged.

In 2019, Yitzhak Ilan, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet who was running for Knesset with the centrist Blue and White party, told a political gathering that Smotrich was a “Jewish terrorist” who planned to blow up cars on a major highway during the Gaza disengagement. Ilan claimed that he had personally interrogated Smotrich.

Smotrich has denied any connection to any plan to destroy infrastructure or commit terror offenses.

Dvir Kariv, who was a senior agent in the Shin Bet at the time, claimed earlier this month in an interview with Channel 12 news that Israeli authorities decided not to prosecute Smotrich and his alleged collaborators because the Shin Bet did not want to expose its sources.

A year after the disengagement, Smotrich won a measure of public infamy for helping organize a protest against the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, the so-called Beast Parade.

Then a senior activist in the radical right-wing, religious activist organization Kommemiyut, Smotrich and others in the group marched through Jerusalem with donkeys, goats and other animals, carrying signs decrying the “uncleanliness” of LGBT pride.

Smotrich, who would later describe himself as a “proud homophobe,” called the gay pride parade “worse than bestiality.”

He went on to help establish and run the Regavim organization, a right-wing group that tracks and protests against illegal Palestinian and Bedouin construction in the West Bank and southern Israel.

Astute maneuvers on the political stage

Despite his extremism, or perhaps because of it, Smotrich’s political rise has been swift and impressive.

By 2009, he had made his way onto the electoral slate of the National Union party, the predecessor of the current Religious Zionism party, though he failed to make it into Knesset.

He took time out for the election campaign from his military service, which he had only begun not long before at the late age of 28 after having deferred his enlistment in order to study in yeshiva and obtain a law degree from the Ono Academic College.

A former political colleague who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled that Smotrich had a powerful influence on National Union’s campaign, despite his youth and political inexperience.

The source said Smotrich attracted larger gatherings to parlor meetings and conferences than did other more senior and recognizable candidates, and was very effective in recruiting volunteers to hand out flyers and fill up political rallies.

National Union – Tekuma party members Israel’s Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel (right) and Bezalel Smotrich seen at a press conference in Jerusalem on January 11, 2015, where the party held their primaries, electing Uri Ariel as the party’s chairman (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite being placed too low on the National Union slate to have a realistic shot at making the Knesset — the party won four seats that year — Smotrich began building up a network of allies that he would leverage for his political advantage in the future.

Predicting correctly that Uri Ariel would inherit the leadership of the party, he quickly aligned himself with the senior politician, eventually securing an important position as head of the ground campaign for the united Jewish Home-National Union party in the 2013 election.

Smotrich also pushed the expansion of National Union’s central committee, helping allies get into the governing panel. By 2015, he had enough support among party bigwigs to win an internal primary, garnering him the second spot on the National Union slate behind Ariel after leapfrogging more established political operatives such as MK Orit Strock and former party director-general Nachi Eyal.

That year would see him finally enter the Knesset for the first time.

Defeating his mentor

In 2019, the charisma and dynamism he had exuded as an MK over the previous four years, together with a dose of savvy political scheming, saw him topple his mentor Ariel in a leadership primary.

The next two years would prove tumultuous both for Israeli politics, which held four elections in near-succession, and for the stew of parties to the right of Likud —  National Union, Jewish Home, the Kahanist far-right Otzma Yehudit, Yamina, and the anti-LGBT ultra-nationalist Noam — which would repeatedly merge and split into various constellations for each election.

In the first of those elections, National Union joined up with Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit to form the United Right Wing Party. Though the election produced a stalemate, URWP backed Netanyahu’s interim government, and Smotrich was catapulted into the caretaker cabinet as transportation minister.

The position afforded him few opportunities to advance his radical right-wing agenda, but he reportedly gained the admiration of professional staff in the ministry and helped advance several projects, including the electrification of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast rail link.

It was not until the March 2021 election that Smotrich would lead an electoral slate, after two rounds in an alliance with Jewish Home, by then essentially a shell of its former self, and the relatively more moderate New Right led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

This time, Smotrich joined his party, rebranded Religious Zionism, with Otzma Yehudit and Noam, veering sharply to the far right.

In the aftermath of the vote, Religious Zionism remained in the opposition, while New Right, now called Yamina, would join a government cobbled together by centrist Yair Lapid.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich seen during an elections campaign event of Otzma Yehudit party in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

The move gave Bennett the premiership for nearly a year, but the decision to ally with leftists and the Arab Ra’am party would prove unpopular with many of Yamina’s right-wing voters, and after a year in power the party was essentially hollowed out.

This left Religious Zionism as the only viable political home for many on the right, especially the hardline religious-nationalist community, and in November the alliance won 14 seats, more than any party except Likud or Yesh Atid.

Seven years after barely scraping into the Knesset, Smotrich is now poised to become one of the most powerful ministers in the most hardline government the country has ever known.

“Everything he has done has always been about control and power; he has always been power thirsty and always wanted to go higher and higher,” said Smotrich’s former political colleague.

“He’s very cunning, he’s conniving, he’s deceptive, but he’s very good at politics.”

The intelligent ideologue

While other politicians have risen swiftly through the ranks by widening their appeal and watering down their stances, Smotrich has seemingly managed to do so while digging in his heels and doubling down on right-wing positions, making him both admired and reviled.

The lawmaker has long been a vociferous supporter of West Bank settlements and just as strongly opposes Palestinian statehood, subscribing to the view that Jews have a right to the whole Land of Israel. His social conservatism is more than tinged with biblical fire and brimstone.

He has stated openly that he wishes for Israel’s judicial system to ultimately be based on Torah law, stridently opposed reforms to liberalize control of Jewish religious life during the last government, and has fiercely denounced the Reform and Conservative denominations during his time in Knesset.

Moti Yogev, a former Jewish Home member of Knesset, described Smotrich as “an ideologue first and foremost,” calling his right-wing nationalism and conservative religious ideology the Religious Zionism leader’s primary driving force.

“His desire to strengthen the Jewish people, to retain Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and to strengthen religious values are what constitute his core political values,” said the former MK.

Yogev rejected the idea that Smotrich is a Machiavellian political operative, noting his insistence on going into the opposition on ideological grounds last year, unlike Bennett, who Yogev said had “extorted for himself the position of prime minister with just six MKs.”

“Smotrich is a very honest man. He has an internal sense of ideology to do good for the entire Jewish people,” Yogev said. “He is immersed in a sense of responsibility and great care for the Jewish people.”

Bezalel Smotrich (left) and Moti Yogev of the United Right party arrive for a meeting with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019, as Rivlin began consulting political leaders to decide who to task with trying to form a new government after the results of the country’s general election were announced a few days prior. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He rated Smotrich as “one of the smartest three MKs in the Knesset,” alongside Netanyahu and MK Ze’ev Elkin of the National Unity party (no relation to National Union), with an analytical brain and the ability to quickly grasp new concepts.

What others might describe as an air of haughtiness was just a reflection of his ability to “think faster than most people” and eagerness to get things done rapidly, claimed Yogev.

According to Yogev, who worked closely with Smotrich in the Knesset, the lawmaker’s ideology stemmed from his upbringing and the influence of his parents, particularly his father, a prominent rabbi, as well as the milieu in which he grew up in Beit El, a religious West Bank settlement outside Ramallah considered one of the ideological strongholds of the settler movement.

Residential buildings in the Jewish settlement Beit El, backdropped by the neighboring Palestinian refugee camp Jalazone on May 1, 2019. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Smotrich’s father, Rabbi Haim Yerucham Smotrich, was one of the rabbinical leaders of the ultra-nationalist Tekumah party, which formed the core of National Union. Smotrich has said he takes advice from his dad on crucial issues.

Radical positions

In 2017, Smotrich published what he called “Israel’s Decisive Plan,” laying out his vision for the future of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians. An ardent advocate of annexing the entire West Bank, Smotrich allowed for granting the Palestinians only municipal autonomy, though the plan does hold out the vague possibility for “models of residency and even citizenship” for Palestinians in the distant future. This is conditioned on a set of requirements Palestinians would be unlikely to fulfill, and Smotrich has said he does not think Palestinians would ever be afforded Israeli citizenship.

Smotrich’s plans once in power include legalizing dozens of unauthorized Israeli West Bank outposts while enforcing demolition orders against unauthorized Palestinian construction in parts of the West Bank; reducing bureaucracy for construction in the settlements; halting the destruction of illegal outposts such as Ramat Migron and Evyatar; and repealing the Disengagement Law to allow the reconstruction of settlements in the northern West Bank that were evacuated and destroyed as part of the Gaza disengagement program in 2005.

A Religious Zionism election manifesto also calls for the abolition of the Civil Administration — a Defense Ministry body that manages civilian affairs such as construction permits in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where all settlers and thousands of Palestinians live. Instead, the party seeks to have the Civil Administration’s powers transferred to another ministry.

Critics of this plan have described it as de facto annexation, giving the government in Jerusalem control of territories that lie outside of Israel and are currently governed by the military.

In coalition negotiations, Smotrich has demanded that the Civil Administration be transferred to the Finance Ministry, the portfolio he appears set to receive in the upcoming government.

The Civil Administration began evacuating six homes scheduled for demolition in the Nativ HaAvot neighborhood in Gush Etzion. The administration brought a trucking company to remove the contents of the apartments. June 10, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/FLASH90)

Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, which advocates for Jewish-Arab coexistence, expressed concern that Smotrich could also use his position as treasurer to push policies detrimental to Bedouin communities in southern Israel.

Regavim, the organization founded by Smotrich, has lobbied for stricter government action against Bedouin construction on state lands in the south, as well as against Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank.

If given control of the Civil Administration, Smotrich could “inflame relations with the Palestinians” if he issues demolition orders for illegal Palestinian construction in the West Bank and not illegal Israeli construction, he warned.

The Religious Zionism leader’s hardline views also extend to extreme conservative stances on social issues, including seeking to blur lines separating religion and state, and he has a record of making deeply racist comments.

In 2016, following a report about de facto segregation in hospital maternity wards between Jewish and Arab mothers, Smotrich expressed approval of separating new moms of different ethnicities, saying his wife “would not want to sleep next to someone who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby in twenty years.”

He also threw in derogatory comments about Arab celebrations after the birth of a child.

While often regarded as a shade less extreme than his far-right, ultra-nationalist colleague Itamar Ben Gvir, Smotrich’s set of beliefs position him on the furthest fringes of Israel’s political right wing and make Religious Zionism virtually indistinguishable from Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, seen as the ideological successor of the racist Kach party and its founder Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Like Ben Gvir, Smotrich has threatened to expel Arab politicians and other Arabs who do not recognize that “the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.”

In September this year, Smotrich invoked fears that Arab citizens of Israel could act as a fifth column against Jewish Israelis during a war with an external enemy and carry out widespread massacres, vowing to ban Arab Knesset parties for what he said was their support for terrorism.

“Smotrich views Arab citizens as enemies within Israel, especially in the Negev,” said Abu Rass.

MK Bezalel Smotrich argues with MK Ahmad Tibi during a discussion and a vote on The vote on the “Bereaved Brothers Law” at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 1, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A Torah theocracy

Smotrich also appears to have inherited from his father radical beliefs as to how Israel’s legal and judicial system should be run.

Haim Smotrich, a Jewish ultra-nationalist and religious ideologue, has espoused the need for uprooting Israel’s secular judicial and legal system and re-establishing a system based on Torah law.

The junior Smotrich has expressly stated his ultimate desire for the State of Israel to be turned into a Torah theocracy. In 2019, he told students at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem that his party “want[s] the justice portfolio because we want to restore the Torah justice system.”

“The laws of Torah are far more preferable than the state of law instituted by Aharon Barak,” he said in a later interview, referencing the Supreme Court justice who developed Israel’s current form of judicial review in the 1990s.

Head of the National Union party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during Jerusalem Day celebration at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, on June 2, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Religious Zionism made overhauling Israel’s judicial and legal system a central plank of its election campaign, and has vowed to pass far-reaching reforms once in government.

The reforms, which are backed by Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties in the nascent government, include provisions that would essentially strip the High Court of the ability to strike down laws or government decisions. The party also wants to give the government almost total control over the appointment of High Court judges.

Proponents say the reforms would render Israel more democratic by making it harder for unelected judges to overrule the majority will. Critics counter they would remove an essential check from Israel’s democratic system and concentrate too much power in the hands of the ruling coalition.

Smotrich’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

A divisive figure

Some pundits have attributed Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s success at the polls to Jewish Israeli voters radicalized by intense rioting that broke out in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in May 2021. Both figures played on fears heightened by the riots, promising to bring law and order to Israel’s streets.

But according to Abu Rass, the appointment of an extremist like Smotrich to a senior cabinet role will likely damage Arab-Jewish relations and feed Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and could spark a new round of rioting inside Israel.

“When you have someone like him with a racist ideology, who spreads hate speech, and is put in charge of policy toward Arabs and Palestinians — this will worsen relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and between Arabs and Jews inside Israel,” he charged.

It’s not the only rift Smotrich is accused of fostering.

Matan Kahana, a National Unity MK who formerly allied with Smotrich as a Yamina MK, said that the Religious Zionism leader’s beliefs are so extreme that they only speak for a small subset of the right-leaning religious-nationalist community

“In practice he represents a respected group in the religious-nationalist community but not a big one,” said Kahana.

That group, known colloquially as ultra-Orthodox nationalists — Hardal in Hebrew — but who are better described as nationalist hardliners who are generally more religious and more socially conservative than the rest of the community, accounted for just three to four Knesset seats, said Kahana, who led the Religious Services Ministry in the outgoing government.

He and other right-wingers who joined parties from the center and left, as well as the Islamist Ra’am, in the outgoing Bennett-Lapid government came under vociferous attack from Smotrich, Netanyahu and their allies, who accused them of being traitors to their constituents.

Among other things, Smotrich called on members of the religious-nationalist community to bar Yamina politicians and officials from synagogues and to make them feel unwanted within the community.

Kahana said the rhetoric had been insincere and “populist” in nature and divided the religious-nationalist community.

“These extremist comments had an immediate effect on the community. What he did was divisive, dangerous, and caused a schism in what remains of the religious-nationalist community,” said Kahana.

Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana speaks during a plenary session in the Knesset plenum, June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Indeed, Yamina defectors from the outgoing government such as MK Idit Silman stated explicitly that the outpouring of hate and vitriol against them had severe consequences on their social lives and deeply impacted their willingness to remain in the coalition.

The former colleague who spoke on condition of anonymity said the attacks were a radical tactic that Smotrich did not shy away from deploying to further his political ambitions, despite the caustic effect it had on the religious-nationalist community.

An official in the Religious Zionism party countered that the criticism of Smotrich was itself insincere.

“The previous government did incredible damage to the State of Israel and there are people who, in order to excuse what they did, are ceaselessly aiming slander and derogatory epithets [toward Smotrich],” the official said. “We prefer to involve ourselves in doing good for the State of Israel and won’t be dragged into a low discourse.”

MK’s Idit Silman consulting with opposition lawmakers from the United Torah Judaism party MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev during a vote to dissolve the Knesset, June 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Kahana, like the other figures interviewed for this article, described Smotrich as highly intelligent, but asserted that his political machinations, be it ousting his political mentor Ariel or his vitriolic attacks on the outgoing government, were opportunistic and reckless.

In particular, Smotrich’s criticisms of the government’s policies in the West Bank were designed to make political hay out of complex problems that had not been addressed by previous governments, including when Smotrich was minister, he charged.

Now that Smotrich is heading back into the government, likely with even more power, solving those issues won’t become any simpler, especially if he tries to turn his rhetoric into reality, said Kahana.

“He will find out very quickly that the policies he talks about are not so easy to fulfill,” Kahana went on. “At the same time, if he razes [the Bedouin West Bank hamlet of] Khan el Ahmar, rebuilds [the outpost of] Homesh, and brings about the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority all at once, we will very quickly be at war… If he acts like in bull in a china shop he will be very dangerous.”

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