Religious Zionism HQ erupts in joy as exit polls indicate strong showing

After weeks of surveys showed far-right alliance barely crossing threshold, network polls have it winning 7 seats, ensuring entry of extremist Otzma, Noam candidates into Knesset

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

Religious Zionism activists celebrate upon watching exit polls at the party's Modi'in headquarters, on March 23, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Religious Zionism activists celebrate upon watching exit polls at the party's Modi'in headquarters, on March 23, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

MODIIN — The Religious Zionism party’s headquarters erupted in celebration Tuesday evening as exit polls indicated that the alliance of far-right factions not only managed to cross the electoral threshold but outperformed expectations, putting it in place to become a major player in the next Knesset.

Religious Zionism was projected to win seven seats in the upcoming Knesset according to exit polls from Channel 12, Channel 13 and Kan. The result would be far stronger than the 4-5 seats public opinion surveys had been predicting for weeks.

Moreover, if exit polls prove accurate, the pro-Netanyahu bloc of Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism and Yamina will have just enough seats to form a 61-member coalition — though the movement of one or two seats from one side to the other could yet prove decisive. The party aggressively pushed the notion during the campaign that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not be able to form a hard-right coalition if Religious Zionism did not cross the electoral threshold of 3.25% of the national vote.

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction, at an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on March 19, 2021, four days before the general election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Dozens of young male supporters of the party broke out in song and dance as one exit poll after another offered generous results for Religious Zionism.

The activists cheered Smotrich’s name for several minutes in the spacious Modi’in ballroom before calming down and quietly soaking in the results. Party chairman Bezalel Smotrich was slated to address supporters later in the evening.

The alliance of Smotrich’s hardline National Union with the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and anti-LGBT Noam party appeared to have paid dividends for the national religious camp. The merger was sealed in January thanks to significant pressure from Netanyahu, who even freed up a seat on Likud’s list for a candidate from Smotrich’s party in order to soften the blow of the merger.

The support from Netanyahu did not stop there. While the Likud leader sought to pull away supporters from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina in the campaign’s final weeks, the premier stopped short of doing the same to Religious Zionism, going as far as calling on wary supporters of the far-right alliance to stick with the party in order to ensure its entrance into the Knesset.

Religious Zionism candidate Itamar Ben Gvir (second R) is mobbed by supporters outside a polling station in Beersheba on March 23, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The only party candidate watching the exit polls with supporters on-site was Religious Zionism’s No. 4, Simcha Rothman, who was greeted with cheers of “Hey, Ho, look who’s here, the next Justice Minister!”

A prominent conservative activist and legal adviser for the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy, Rothman was one of the first voices in favor of a Supreme Court override clause to limit the power of the judiciary.

If the exit polls prove accurate, a disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane will enter the Knesset for the first time in nearly a decade. Itamar Ben Gvir is no. 3 on the list. This would be the first time that the country’s prime minister has played a central role in such a development. Such extremist lawmakers had long been widely accepted as being beyond the pale.

The last such lawmaker was Michael Ben Ari, who served as a National Union MK from 2009 to 2012 before splitting away to form Otzma Yehudit (then Otzma L’yisrael) ahead of the 2013 election, when he failed to cross the threshold. Ben Ari was disqualified from running in 2019 by the Central Elections Committee, which determined that he had a history of inciting violence against Israel’s Arab minority.

File photo: Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari (R), Itamar Ben Gvir (2-R) and Baruch Marzel (L) attend a campaign event in Bat Yam with Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties on April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Ben Gvir served as Ben Ari’s parliamentary assistant while the latter was in the Knesset. In his teens, Ben Gvir led the youth wing of Kahane’s Kach movement. After years in court as a defendant due to his far-right activism, he studied for the bar, going on to become one of the most sought-after attorneys for ultra-nationalist youth accused of carrying out hate attacks against Palestinians, along with IDF soldiers accused of using excessive force against Palestinians.

While he insists that his views are not as extreme as Kahane’s — Ben Gvir supports expelling “disloyal” Arab citizens as opposed to the Kach movement founder who backed indiscriminately exiling the entire minority population — he has attended annual memorial services for the assassinated, Brooklyn-born rabbi where he has described Otzma Yehudit as following in Kahane’s footsteps.

Ben Gvir’s entrance into the Knesset could have ripple effects that impact Israel’s relations with the US and American Jewry as well. Kahane’s Kach party is designated as a terror organization by the State Department and two major US Jewish groups — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee have vowed in the past not to meet with Otzma Yehudit representatives.

Noam party highway billboards outside Tel Aviv that read “Israel chooses to be normal.” (Courtesy)

That policy might extend to members of the Noam faction, whose chairman Avi Maoz is No. 6 on Religious Zionism’s list. Even if the exit polls prove inaccurate, Maoz could yet make it into the Knesset through the so-called Norwegian Law, which allows ministers to resign from Knesset, thereby allowing candidates lower down the slate to enter instead.

Maoz, who has served as director of the Interior and Housing Ministries, has vowed to oppose the “LGBT agenda” in the Knesset, and his homophobic faction’s candidates have spoken out against “unnatural” gay marriages.

The anti-LGBT sentiment can be found at the top of the list as well, with Smotrich calling out “LGBT culture” and comparing gay marriage to incest just last week.

Such attitudes could set up a clash with a senior Likud figure, Netanyahu ally and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is openly gay.

Also entering the Knesset if exit polls prove accurate will be longtime settler activist Orit Strock, former Jewish Home activist Rachel Chinkin and Michal Waldiger, the director of the Bat Ami organization, which places religious Zionist teen girls in national service programs.

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