As Netanyahu Nears Power, the Far Right
Wants to Oversee the Army
Bezalel Smotrich is an ultranationalist who opposes Palestinian sovereignty and
wants to govern Israel by Jewish law. He seeks the Defense Ministry in Benjamin
By Patrick Kingsley
Nov. 16, 2022, 11:18 a.m. ET (New York Times)
KEDUMIM, West Bank — As Benjamin Netanyahu attempts to form a new
government in Israel, one likely member of his cabinet has drawn particular concern
in Washington and in Israeli security circles: Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right lawyer
angling to lead Israel’s powerful Defense Ministry.
Mr. Smotrich, 42, is a former settler activist with a history of hard-line positions,
including support for segregation in Israeli maternity wards; governing Israel
according to the laws of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible;
and backing Jewish property developers who won’t sell to Arabs.
Mr. Smotrich has described himself as a homophobe, refuses to shake women’s
hands for religious reasons and has said it was a “mistake” that Israel’s founders did
not expel more Arabs when the country was founded.
Now, Mr. Smotrich wants to be defense minister, the second-most-powerful position
in government, and one that would give him oversight over the Israeli occupation of
the West Bank and airstrikes on Gaza. It would also make him a central point of
contact between Israel and the United States, which provides the country with more
than $3 billion in military aid each year.
His far-right ally, Itamar Ben-Gvir , who is seeking to run Israel’s police forces, may
have attracted more media attention. But Mr. Smotrich’s ideological focus,
organizational discipline and long-term vision — coupled with his desire for the
Defense Ministry — have made foreign diplomats and domestic opponents fear his
rise as much as Mr. Ben-Gvir’s.
Like Mr. Ben-Gvir, Mr. Smotrich wants Israel to annex the occupied West Bank,
ending any hope of a Palestinian state. But both his critics and allies feel Mr.
Smotrich has a clearer idea about how to make that happen.
“From the perspective of preventing Palestinian statehood, his agenda is more of a
threat,” said Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C.
Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.
“He thinks a Palestinian state is still possible, and this is why he’s investing so much
in trying to prevent it,” Mr. Zalzberg said.
Mr. Smotrich’s rise highlights the growing role played within Israeli society by
religious ultranationalists, who emerged as the third-largest bloc in the Israeli
Parliament in the general election earlier this month — their strongest showing ever
— and who are increasingly reaching the top ranks of the security establishment and
Mr. Smotrich’s ambitions also underline the difficult balance that Mr. Netanyahu
must now strike as he tries to finalize his government.
On Tuesday, Israel’s Parliament was sworn in, formally giving Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc
a majority coalition and bringing it a step closer to power.
But before he can formally re-enter office, Mr. Netanyahu needs to persuade his
coalition partners to agree to the makeup of his cabinet and a shared policy platform.
One of the remaining hurdles is a disagreement about Mr. Smotrich’s role. Mr.
Netanyahu has to placate Mr. Smotrich, without whom he has no parliamentary
majority. But Mr. Netanyahu also needs to consider international reaction,
particularly from the U.S. government, which would probably balk at having to work
so closely with someone with such extreme views.
“The administration is considering whether or not it would be consistent with
President Biden’s emphasis on promoting democratic values to deal with Bezalel
Smotrich and others in his party,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador
to Israel and distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research
Current U.S. officials have not publicly discussed Mr. Smotrich by name. But as the
Israeli news media increasingly presents Mr. Smotrich as a candidate for the Defense
Ministry, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem has said it is closely watching events.
“Obviously we are keenly focused on ministry appointments,” said Thomas R. Nides,
the U.S. ambassador to Israel, in a text message. “Specifically the minister of defense,
who is a major interlocutor with us.”
Amos Gilad, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, told reporters on Saturday
that Mr. Smotrich would be “a major disaster” as defense minister if he refused to
moderate his views after taking office.
Mr. Smotrich’s office declined an interview, as did his spokesman. But his allies
portray him as a diligent public servant whose critics misrepresent him.
“I’m convinced that Bezalel Smotrich will serve all the people,” said Hananel Durani,
the mayor of Kedumim, the Israeli settlement in the northern West Bank where Mr.
“He has a certain image in the media,” said Mr. Durani, a member of Mr. Smotrich’s
party, Religious Zionism. But in reality, Mr. Durani said, he was a conscientious man
who “listens, learns and takes decisions quickly.”
Mr. Smotrich is often mentioned in the same context as Mr. Ben-Gvir, another far-
right politician hoping for a senior security role in the new government. But though
part of the same far-right alliance, the men come from different backgrounds and
rabbinical schools — and in fact lead separate parties.
The son of a right-wing rabbi of European descent, Mr. Smotrich grew up on a
settlement in the occupied West Bank and studied religious law for far longer than
Mr. Ben-Gvir grew up in a less observant environment, in a family of Middle Eastern
origin. He spent his childhood in a middle-class suburb west of Jerusalem and only
moved to a settlement in the West Bank as a young adult.
While Mr. Ben-Gvir’s earthy gusto was the driving force behind their alliance’s
success in the recent election, Mr. Smotrich displayed the clearer roadmap.
It was Mr. Smotrich who produced detailed plans to limit the Supreme Court’s ability
to check the power of elected lawmakers. While Mr. Ben-Gvir expressed looser ideas
about accentuating Israel’s Jewish character, Mr. Smotrich set out a sharper program
for doing so — publicly opposing the organization of soccer games on the Jewish
sabbath, for example.
“Smotrich is coming from a place that is much more defined, ideologically and
theologically,” said Mr. Zalzberg, the analyst. “Whereas Ben-Gvir has moved into a
space that is much more vague.”
Throughout their careers, it has also been Mr. Smotrich who has shown the greater
organizational discipline, and the greater ability to work within the system.
Like the vast majority of Israelis, Mr. Smotrich served as a conscript in the Israeli
Army, briefly taking a minor administrative role after studying Jewish teachings for
several years. By contrast, Mr. Ben-Gvir was barred from army service because he
was deemed too extremist.
Both men are lawyers. But while Mr. Ben-Gvir worked largely independently, as a
defense attorney for Jews accused of violence and extremism, Mr. Smotrich
harnessed his legal expertise to found a pro-settler nongovernmental group that
worked systematically to cement Israeli control of the West Bank.
While Mr. Ben-Gvir has several criminal convictions, including for racist incitement
and support for a terrorist group, Mr. Smotrich was released without charge in 2005
after protesting against the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Smotrich even worked in an earlier Netanyahu government, albeit in a more
junior capacity. In 2019 and 2020, he served as transport minister, winning plaudits
from allies and critics for advancing road projects in both the West Bank and Israel
“The group that Ben-Gvir is most focused on, and feels that he needs to deal with and
rein in, are the Arabs,” said Prof. Yehudah Mirsky, an expert on Jewish political
thought at Brandeis University.
“For Smotrich, it’s the state — the state is the real problem,” Professor Mirsky added.
Both men are religious Zionists: They believe that the land in what is now Israel and
the occupied territories was promised to Jews by God.
But they come from different rabbinical schools within the movement, giving the two
men slightly different theological underpinnings, according to Daniella Weiss, a
settler leader and longtime neighbor and ally of Mr. Smotrich.
Mr. Ben-Gvir’s current beliefs are hard to pin down, but as a younger man he was an
unabashed follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane, an Israeli-American extremist who
believed in protecting Jews by expelling Arabs from Israel.
Mr. Smotrich’s lodestar is Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the forefathers of
religious Zionism, who placed greater emphasis on establishing Jewish rule over the
land, and was less concerned about how many Arabs lived there.
Rabbi Kahane believed that “as long as we have enemies on the land of Israel, there
will always be problems,” Ms. Weiss said. His “first act was to see to it that the
enemies do not live here,” she said.
Followers of Rabbi Kook, like Mr. Smotrich and Ms. Weiss, believe that “from the act
of redeeming the land, everything in our life will benefit,” said Ms. Weiss.
“If we have more land and if we have more settlements,” Ms. Weiss said, “then the
Arabs will understand that they will not have here a Palestinian state.”
(Reporting was contributed by Myra Noveck from Kedumim, West Bank; by Gabby
Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel; and by Jonathan Rosen from Jerusalem.)
Article source: New York Times, 16/11/2022