L-R: MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally of their Religious Zionism party in the southern city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)
Main image: MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a Religious Zionism party rally in Sderot, Oct. 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)
AnalysisThe anti-Netanyahu campaign that hopes to hand him victory

How Smotrich and Ben Gvir led an uprising, wrapped in a bear hug, against Netanyahu

At the ex-PM’s urging, Israel’s extreme-right factions united into an electoral juggernaut that feeds off right-wing discontent with Netanyahu himself

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Main image: MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a Religious Zionism party rally in Sderot, Oct. 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)

The leaked recording landed with a boom into a sleepy election campaign.

The man speaking, Religious Zionism leader Betzalel Smotrich, expressed strong views on the character of his political ally Benjamin Netanyahu.

“If I wanted to take two [Knesset] seats from Bibi [Netanyahu], I only had to attack him that he’s a lying son of a liar. He didn’t want to go with Ra’am?! He was desperate to! I was the only one who stood in his way,” Smotrich is heard saying in the recording, made public by the Kan broadcaster on October 23.

Smotrich was speaking about something that Netanyahu has repeatedly said never happened: Likud’s eager wooing of the Islamist Ra’am party last year. Had Netanyahu succeeded in that effort, he’d have won that election.

The recording was described by pundits as a “bombshell” and a “shock.” The derision, the vulgarity — “attack him” above is a translation of a Hebrew idiom that literally reads, “enter his mother’s mother” — turned the event into the main story of the election for a few days.

Had Ra’am given Netanyahu his coalition, Smotrich is heard saying, the Arab party would have had overwhelming influence over him.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas attends a discussion on violence in the Arab community on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“The moment he agrees to form a government with them, in the final analysis he’s dependent on them. So what does it matter [if he promised them less than Lapid]? At first he was only willing to give them a little, but later on he’d give them everything they wanted or they’d topple him and go to elections.”

Even so, Smotrich confided, “I’m cooperating with the narrative [Netanyahu] created [that he had never pursued Ra’am] because it serves what I think is best for the people of Israel.”

His interlocutor, who can’t be heard in the recording, seems to suggest Netanyahu might be the wrong man to lead the country, to which Smotrich replies: “Wait a bit. With Netanyahu, physics or biology will do their work. He won’t be here forever; at some point he’ll be convicted by the court or whatever. Have patience. There’s no question Netanyahu is a problem, but you have to choose between one problem and another. Should I drop everything [I care about] because [I decide my problem with] Netanyahu is the most important thing?”

Smotrich was contrite after the broadcast, but not embarrassed. He apologized for his “style” but refused to retract the accusation. To Channel 13 he said, “I said things I shouldn’t have said in terms of their style, and for that I apologize to Netanyahu, and primarily to the public.” In a Twitter post, he offered this remarkable run-on sentence, more a restatement than an apology: “I’m proud that I led the opposition to Abbas and the Muslim Brotherhood and happy the nationalist camp in its entirety rallied to this position, and I apologize for the inappropriate words that were said in a closed room a long time ago.”

When Likud loved Ra’am

Smotrich, of course, is right about Netanyahu’s eagerness last year to build a coalition with Ra’am’s help.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu urges the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties to reunite for the upcoming Knesset elections, in a video released on August 23, 2022. (Screen capture: Facebook)

The internet doesn’t forget, nor is it easy for right-wing voters to do so. The debate surrounding a Likud-Ra’am alliance was front-page news for weeks, and it was no mystery where Netanyahu and his surrogates stood.

Pro-Netanyahu journalists like Yehuda Schlesinger of Israel Hayom were tweeting as early as April 3, 2021, “I prefer a government with a cousin [Mansour Abbas] who wants coexistence to a government with a brother [Avigdor Liberman] who incites and wants to send [Haredim] to the landfill in a wheelbarrow.”

On April 11, one of the most outspokenly pro-Netanyahu voices in the country, the radio host Yaakov Bardugo, penned an op-ed warning that if a Likud-Ra’am coalition isn’t formed, “the left will celebrate,” and insisting a right-led coalition with Ra’am was preferable to a left-led one.

None of this was subtle. On April 19, Netanyahu booster Yinon Magal called Smotrich and his supporters “a bunch of ungrateful megalomaniacs who reject people because of their religion, even when they hold out their hand, renounce terror. A shame on Religious Zionism.”

And so it went, a steady drumbeat of support by Netanyahu’s loyalists for the controversial step he desperately wanted to take.

Likud’s own MKs were part of this upswell of support. Galit Distal Atbaryan, who was personally appointed by Netanyahu to the Likud Knesset slate, openly labeled Smotrich a bigot for opposing the union. “You don’t boycott the Arabs. ‘Arabs’ isn’t a dirty word. Mansour Abbas is a new voice that brings enormous hope…. He doesn’t advocate division, doesn’t boycott ‘the Zionist parties,’ holds out a hand to Netanyahu. And it’s a very good thing that Netanyahu holds out his hand in return.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, speaks with Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas ahead of the vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“Betzalel,” Likud MK Yoav Kisch wrote to Smotrich in a May 27, 2021, Twitter post, “there’s a difference between the Joint List that’s fighting against us over the character of the State of Israel and Mansour Abbas (I don’t think he’s a Zionist) who isn’t trying to change its character and has set aside our disagreements in order to work on civic issues for the public he represents…. To treat them as the same thing is a mistake.”

Netanyahu even enlisted Smotrich’s religious leaders to change his mind. On May 3, at Netanyahu’s urging, Rabbi Haim Druckman, the most senior rabbinic figure in the religious-Zionist world, met with Abbas in a tete-a-tete Netanyahu hoped would overcome Smotrich’s misgivings. And a month later, on June 14, the day after the Bennett-Lapid government was officially established, the religious-Zionist website Srugim ran a headline that cited the uber-conservative Rabbi Tzvi Israel Thau sarcastically blaming Smotrich’s “extraneous righteousness” for Netanyahu’s ouster.

It must be said: Challenged on these facts, Netanyahu insists there is nuance here. He claims his offers to Ra’am never included a seat at the coalition table, only an outsider role to help him retain power. It’s a strange claim that raises the question of why Ra’am might be interested in such an arrangement. It is also a claim contradicted by many of his own surrogates and by Abbas.

The bottom line is simple: Nearly everyone, including in Likud itself, believes Smotrich. Vanishingly few believe Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s trust deficit

And that reputation has carried a terrible cost for the former premier. It’s been his biggest obstacle to victory over 43 months of deadlock. After three decades in politics and 12 consecutive years in power, he’d lied to so many allies and reneged on so many solemn promises — most recently in robbing Benny Gantz of his turn as prime minister despite their 2020 rotation deal — that he can no longer make such promises or negotiate effectively.

MK Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of Likud, sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)

The problem isn’t ethical but tactical. Nearly every right-wing leader who turned on him over the past four years harbors memories of betrayal at his hands. That experience has robbed Netanyahu of the ability to bring them back to his side with promises of funding, policies or ministries. They simply don’t believe those promises.

Here lies the irony of Netanyahu’s two-month showdown with Smotrich in the spring of 2021, which became the top story in the last week of this campaign: Even if Smotrich had okayed a deal with Ra’am, Ra’am would have rejected it.

In late May 2021, Netanyahu phoned Abbas. It was the latest of dozens of similar calls Netanyahu placed to the Ra’am leader as he sought to prevent a Lapid-Bennett government.

According to a leak of the call’s contents to Channel 12, likely from Ra’am officials, Netanyahu told Abbas, “I’m the only one who can lead this [integration of Ra’am into Israeli coalition politics]; all their promises [from Lapid and Bennett] are written on ice [i.e., would not be kept]. I believe in change. I want to do this together with you. I’m the only one who can turn a new page with the Arab community. My stature and the fact that my government will be a right-wing government will allow me to do things they won’t be able to permit themselves to do.”

A few days later, in a June 3 interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Abbas was asked why he’d turned down Netanyahu’s apparently heartfelt pleas.

“In the end,” he said, “I reached the moment of decision and you ask yourself if you believe that the other side will actually carry out [their commitments], if there’s goodwill or not, because you can write any old thing down on the page.”

(L-R) Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett, New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas, Labor head Merav Michaeli and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz at a meeting of the heads of the would-be-coalition in Tel Aviv, June 6, 2021. (Ra’anan Cohen)

In the moment of truth, Abbas followed the broader pattern: He chose Bennett-Lapid over Netanyahu because he couldn’t be sure Netanyahu’s fervent promises would be fulfilled.

Indeed, the story of Netanyahu’s ouster last year isn’t really comprehensible without grasping this dynamic. On May 29, 2021, Netanyahu called Gideon Sa’ar, then head of the rightist anti-Netanyahu New Hope party, asking for a meeting to discuss an astonishing offer of a rotation agreement in which Netanyahu would step aside and Sa’ar would have first go as prime minister. Sa’ar, like Abbas, refused on the spot.

He assumed, he would say later, that the offer wasn’t real, that it was a ploy to sow distrust in the nascent coalition. Netanyahu seemed to confirm that suspicion when his staffers apparently leaked word of his offer to Sa’ar even after it had already been rejected.

In a public statement on May 30, Naftali Bennett drove the point home. “There was yet another attempt, a public one, to establish a [Netanyahu-led] government, with Gideon Sa’ar first in rotation and Netanyahu second,” he said. “I, of course, agreed. But the attempt failed because no one believes those promises will be fulfilled.”

It wasn’t Smotrich who lost Netanyahu his coalition with Ra’am. It was Netanyahu, whose reputation ensured that such a coalition, or any deal that required Ra’am to gamble on Netanyahu’s assurances, was never really on the table.

Religious Zionism Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks next to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of opposition parties at the Knesset, on June 28, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The anti-Netanyahu Netanyahu voter

All of this brings us back to October 2022 and Smotrich’s assessment in the leaked recording that Netanyahu is a “desperate…lying son of a liar.” There was more here than meets the eye.

In the immediate aftermath of Smotrich’s leak, it was generally assumed, including among Netanyahu advisers, that Smotrich himself was the source.

A devoutly religious man, Smotrich makes a point of never telling a direct lie. In the recording itself, he confides: “I don’t lie when they interview me [about Netanyahu’s claims that he never wooed Ra’am]. I say that I don’t deal with what has been, it’s not important.”

On October 24, the day after the recording became public, Channel 13 anchor Udi Segal asked Smotrich point-blank if he’d leaked it. “It positions you as someone who stood up to Netanyahu, prevented him from forming a coalition with Mansour Abbas, here’s the ‘real right,’” Segal suggested.

Smotrich’s response was short, dismissive, and clarifying in its evasiveness: “Come, come, leave it alone.”

Whether or not Smotrich was the source of the leaked recording, he basked in the attention it drew, which included television and radio interviews and endless social media chatter. It gave him the chance to reiterate again and again his criticism of Netanyahu — that Netanyahu sought out Ra’am, that Smotrich stopped him, and that Netanyahu has since lied about it to his supporters — while pretending to apologize for it.

And in so mistreating his political patron and ally, he shone a spotlight on a startling shift in the current campaign.

In this fifth race, a profound change has come over the Netanyahu camp. More and more, the campaigns of right-wing parties have focused not on Netanyahu’s strengths but on his weaknesses. For growing portions of the Israeli right, Netanyahu is seen as a failure — not just electorally, but on policy issues too

Over the last four races, right-wing parties ran at Netanyahu’s side with the insistence that Netanyahu was the right man to lead Israel. But in this fifth race, after four failures at the ballot box and growing frustration with his inability to deliver a victory, a profound change has come over the Netanyahu camp. More and more, the campaigns of right-wing parties have focused not on Netanyahu’s strengths but on his weaknesses.

For growing portions of the Israeli right, Netanyahu is seen as a failure — not just electorally, but on policy issues too.

It was under Netanyahu, not Bennett, that May 2021’s internecine fighting between Arabs and Jews tore apart mixed towns like Lod and drew bitter excoriation from right-wing constituencies, especially in those poorer regions of the country where Mizrahi Jewish and Arab communities live in an uneasy coexistence.

A great deal of anger is bubbling beneath the surface over the endemic violence and runaway crime waves that torment impoverished communities in the north and south. It was under Netanyahu that Arab crime organizations, including among the Bedouin communities of the Negev that are Ra’am’s voter base, have been allowed to grow to the point that they now inflict almost daily terror on their own communities and on neighboring Jewish ones.

On the Palestinian front, continuing waves of persistent low-level terror attacks, including occasional bursts of Gazan rocket fire, raised new complaints in working-class towns near the Strip about Netanyahu’s longtime policy of ensuring stability in Gaza by allowing Qatar to fund Hamas.

Bedouin women walk past campaign billboards for the Likud party bearing a picture of its leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Bedouin town of Rahat on March 10, 2021. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

And on and on it goes. Whether this criticism is fair is irrelevant; it is present, and, say campaign strategists, it is driving right-wing voters away from Netanyahu.

The address for frustrated rightists

But where does a frustrated rightist go if they are unwilling to join forces with the center-left, as Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope or Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu have done?

Over the past three months of campaigning, Smotrich and Ben Gvir have worked hard to be that address, the natural home of the anti-Netanyahu protest vote that nevertheless wants to see Netanyahu as prime minister. And they’ve enjoyed astonishing success in the process, swelling the far-right to 14 seats in the last polls before Election Day.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir see Netanyahu as weak and they intend to be unrelenting in their pressure to force Netanyahu rightward once he’s returned to the prime minister’s chair

Smotrich and Ben Gvir see Netanyahu as weak and they intend — they are not shy on the point; it’s their central campaign message — to be unrelenting in their pressure to force Netanyahu rightward once he’s returned to the prime minister’s chair.

Smotrich makes the point constantly, such as on October 20, when he shared a tweet by Defense Minister Gantz in which Gantz vows not to join a Netanyahu coalition. The tweet references Gantz, but it’s talking about Netanyahu. “A failed defense minister,” Smotrich charges. “Gantz, who already broke campaign promises in the past, set out on a path today that will end with an attempt to crawl into a government with Netanyahu. Only if we’re larger than [Gantz] can we be certain of a wholly right-wing government.”

Smotrich’s point is not that Gantz might ask to join a Netanyahu coalition, but that Netanyahu will be eager to have him.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, visits Beit Orot, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of At-Tur, October 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu, they believe, is badly weakened by four failed races. It’s the far-right’s time to shine, to be the steady hand on the tiller of a government held together by the fading old leader.

Netanyahu is aware of all this. He hopes fervently that this newly energized far-right will galvanize at least a seat or two of voters who’d previously been disillusioned enough to stay home. That might be enough.

Yet if the polls are right, the vast majority of Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s new support doesn’t come from new voters. Religious Zionism’s growth hasn’t changed the Netanyahu bloc’s 60-seat total. The far-right’s success seems to be due mostly to a shift within the bloc. Only on Tuesday night will it be possible to gauge if it brought out new voters.


In the meantime, as the Smotrich recording showed, the two far-right leaders are mounting what is effectively an uprising wrapped in a bear hug.

Consider the unasked-for support they have suddenly decided to offer Netanyahu over his corruption trial.

Religious Zionism Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich waves an Israeli flag at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Unsolicited, Smotrich proposed a bill in mid-October that would cancel the crime of “breach of trust,” which makes up three of the seven charges in Netanyahu’s trial. Two weeks later, once again without Netanyahu’s asking, Ben Gvir proposed to grant Netanyahu blanket immunity from prosecution through a so-called French law.

Netanyahu’s critics assumed he’d engineered these proposals. But the reality — that they came at Religious Zionism’s initiative in the delicate two weeks leading up to Election Day — is far more damaging.

The proposals didn’t come from Likud. They caught the party off-guard. Reached by reporters about Smotrich’s breach-of-trust proposal, Likud spokespeople assured journalists that the change would not affect Netanyahu’s trial since it would not apply retroactively. It was a strange mistake that revealed that Likud had not read the text released by Religious Zionism but simply assumed the party would not be so brazen. But journalists read the proposal and discovered that it would, in fact, apply retroactively to Netanyahu’s trial. To Likud’s horror, Smotrich had crafted a bill tailored with embarrassing precision to Netanyahu’s legal troubles.

It was a moment that began to reveal a pattern. Religious Zionism was not supporting Netanyahu; it was weakening him. It was dragging his trial into the last leg of an election campaign when no one else was talking about it, and humiliatingly dangling a release from the trial over Netanyahu’s head. On October 23, when Smotrich was heard saying in the leaked recording that “at some point he’ll be convicted by the court or whatever,” some in Likud began to connect the dots.

And even as they offered Netanyahu liberation from his trial, they made their demands. Smotrich publicly demanded the defense, finance, and justice ministries last week, the central levers of power in the government. Ben Gvir demanded the Public Security Ministry, presenting a 10-point plan that targeted the latest wave of terror attacks and crime in southern towns.

A bus with a campaign poster for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party passes by the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on October 30, 2022. The poster says: “The 61st seat depends only on you!” (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

To those paying attention, Religious Zionism seemed to be doing its utmost in the final days of the campaign to remind right-wing voters, even as it embraced Netanyahu, of his many deficiencies.

The danger for Netanyahu goes beyond mere embarrassment at the challenge to his character and leadership. In their attempt to ride a wave of right-wing frustration with Netanyahu to positions of influence at his side, Smotrich and Ben Gvir risk undermining the very camp they are meant to save. The demands for top ministries drew groans of frustration in Likud, which has worked hard to hold on to centrist voters turned off by the far-right’s growing influence. In the March 2021 race, nearly one in five of Likud’s 2020 voters didn’t vote for the party. Netanyahu doesn’t want that to happen again.

That’s why Netanyahu has refused — sometimes pointedly — to be photographed with the far-right leaders.

An embarrassed Netanyahu was forced over the past two weeks to publicly decline the offers to legislate away his legal troubles; muttered in an interview that Likud, not Religious Zionism, would hold on to key ministries like defense and finance; and released a statement from unnamed Likud officials complaining that Ben Gvir “is losing control” and “is drunk on power.”

As he headed into Tuesday’s fateful election, Netanyahu was caught in a vise. Across the aisle are parties stubbornly determined to unseat him and rendered too distrustful by past experience to be swayable. Meanwhile, his own camp is increasingly under the spell of young upstarts determined to control him. It’s too late to reconsider his decision to unify and grow the extremist right, and no clear alternative waits in the wings to jump in and replace them.

Netanyahu entered Election Day pretending everything is okay. All now depends on delivering 61 seats for his camp. If he fails, none of this matters; he will find himself in a battle simply to justify his continued leadership of the right.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara cast their ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem in the country’s fifth election in less than four years on November 1, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

If, however, he is successfully swept back into power by the far-right surge he’s worked so hard to produce, he will quickly turn his attention to reining in Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s ambitions. The new coalition will be a narrow one, and thus an unstable and likely unhappy one. Its weakest, most resentful link may well be Netanyahu himself.

If they overplay their hand, if they render themselves political threats in their own right by weakening and humiliating Netanyahu, and if the Likud leader sees a path to a sixth election that frees him of his rightist minders, he may well take it. Smotrich and Ben Gvir may find themselves once more in the throes of an election — this time with their great ally and patron determined to clip their wings.

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