Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich said Monday that the new government would need to “take action” against certain human rights organizations when it enters office, calling the groups an “existential threat to the state of Israel.”
His remarks sparked an outcry from Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, who responded by saying that it was the incoming government led by presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that was actually a threat to Israel’s democracy.
Speaking at a conference titled “‘Human Rights’ organizations Operated by Hamas,” which was organized by the Ad Kan right-wing activist group, Smotrich said that human rights organizations that actively work against the State of Israel are an existential threat to the state.
He said the incoming government will need to target such organizations’ finances and act against them via “legal and security means.”
“Faced with de-legitimization, incitement to terrorism and slander, it’s time to start responding. That’s our challenge. I have no doubt that the next few days will see the establishment of a good government,” the far-right lawmaker said.
Speaking later at an “emergency conference to save democracy” held at the Knesset, Michaeli said, “It was once a given that the State of Israel is Jewish and democratic. Today, the democratic part cannot be taken for granted and the attacks on it are genuinely an existential fight.”
She slammed Smotrich — who has repeatedly demanded the defense portfolio during coalition talks — for what she called an “unbelievable statement” that threatens Israeli democracy.
Michaeli suggested that Smotrich’s notion of a “good” government was dependent on its Jewish nature, even at the expense of democracy.
“To think that a Jew would say a sentence like that. How should the government deal with them? Go around waving a gun, trying to wipe out our judicial system? This is a clear attempt to eradicate the democratic part of our country and to subordinate it to what they are now calling ‘Jewish,'” she said.
“He who calls human rights organizations an existential threat, he and his friends… are the existential threat to the State of Israel,” she added.
Michaeli, whose party won four seats in the November 1 election and is expected to join the opposition in the 25th Knesset, said she would join forces with human rights organizations to “fight for the character of the State of Israel – a country that is the nation-state of the Jewish people, a liberal democracy with equal rights for everyone.”
In August, the Israel Defense Forces carried out raids against seven organizations in the West Bank defined by Palestinians as human rights organizations. Israel insisted that the groups effectively operated as an arm of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror organization, a claim the groups have denied.
Right-wing parties have also frequently railed against Israeli human rights organizations that seek to highlight alleged abuses by the IDF or settlers in the West Bank, accusing them of betraying the country.
It remains unclear whether Smotrich will secure the appointment as defense minister. Netanyahu has been opposed to granting Smotrich the defense role due to his lack of experience in the military, his potentially inflammatory plans, expected international blowback, particularly from the United States, and other concerns. Smotrich, in turn, has said his party will stand by its demands.
Meanwhile, Smotrich responded to criticism of him on social media from Likud supporters over his ongoing dispute with Netanyahu — including one instance that saw a user compare him to Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar — tweeting: “It can’t be that every time we don’t blindly accept demands by Likud there will be those seeking to portray us the enemy, incite against us and defame us. Religious Zionism is a full partner of the national camp and of the Likud party.”
Netanyahu condemned the comparison between Smotrich and Sinwar. “Even when we disagree there’s no room for such vile comments,” he said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, the Knesset’s temporary Finance Committee approved United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni as its chair on Monday, after the Arrangements Committee responsible for creating the Knesset’s parliamentary panels recommended Gafni.
The temporary Finance Committee and temporary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee are the only impermanent panels required by law, alongside the Arrangements Committee. Once the Arrangements Committee finishes its work setting up Knesset committees, it will dissolve itself and the rest of the committees will be finalized.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.