Bezalel Smotrich | A settler on a holy mission

Israel’s Finance Minister, leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party, wants Palestinians to be ‘encouraged’ to leave Gaza and fellow Jewish settlers to return to the enclave

Updated - January 07, 2024 11:17 am IST

Published - January 07, 2024 12:52 am IST

In 2021, a Zionist walked into the Knesset and vowed to kick Arabs out of the country. When the Arab members in Parliament objected, he termed them “anti-Zionists, terror supporters, enemies”, who were only “here by mistake”. “It’s a mistake”, he said, “that [Israel’s first Prime Minister] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948”. The “job” in question: the Nakba, the near-total destruction and violent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Bezalel Smotrich is bearded, blue-eyed and in bellicose form even now. Last week, Mr. Smotrich, who is currently the Finance Minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet, “encouraged” Palestinians to leave Gaza, which has been under Israeli attack since October 7, and in the same breath, called his fellow settler Israelis to “return” to the enclave (The U.S., Israel’s staunch ally, rebuked Mr. Smotrich for his “inflammatory and irresponsible” statement). A year before, he had said there was no such thing as Palestinian people.

An ultra-nationalist activist and leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party, he is often described as the “overlord” of the West Bank. “I may also be a far-right person, homophobe, racist, fascist, but my word is my bond,” he said in an interview last year. A list of words and bonds, in no particular order: Every Arab is a “terrorist”; homosexuality is akin to “bestiality”; the Bible, not capitalism, holds answers to Israel’s prosperity. Like a proverbial truth, he said in 2019: “The ethos in this country is of Zionism, of liberation, of the return to Zion after 2,000 years, and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.”

Like father like son

Mr. Smotrich was born in 1980 in the settler town of Haspin in the West Bank. In an interview, he traced his ancestry to Ukrainian roots and claimed his grandfather “was a true Palestinian”. One of Mr. Smotrich’s grandmothers survived the Holocaust, the other was born to a family of Zionist leaders.

Rabbi Haim was a leader of the Jewish supremacist Tekumah party, the core of what later became the National Union party (a version was later rebranded to RZP). He guided his son to an Orthodox religious education in yeshiva, a schooling where he learned rabbinic and Torah traditions. Mr. Smotrich served in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and later obtained a law degree from the Ono Academic College.

Mr. Smotrich grew up in the nationalist religious settlement of Beit El. The settlement, perched atop a hill outside the Palestinian city of Ramallah, is deemed illegal under international law; within the settler community, it rests as an ideological sentinel. Moti Yogev, a former National Union party member and Mr. Smotrich’s colleague, told the Times of Israel that from this social milieu and his parents, particularly his father, Junior Smotrich inherited his politics.

At 25, Mr. Smotrich organised the anti-gay pride ‘Beast Parade’. In 2005, during a protest against Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip, he was arrested and found in possession of 700 litres of gasoline (he was never charged). He helped establish and run the Regavim organisation, a pro-settler movement known for monitoring and tracking illegal Palestinian and Bedouin construction.

Mr. Smotrich first tried, unsuccessfully, for the Knesset in 2009, for the religious hardline National Union party. Even at the age of 29, a colleague told Times of Israel that Mr. Smotrich “had a powerful influence” on the campaign. He was elected to the Knesset in 2015.

He rebranded the National Union-Tkuma to the RZP in 2021; ran the 2022 elections with the Otzma Yehudit Party led by Ben-Gvir (the ideological successor of the racist Kach party). The bloc won 14 seats and became members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition. Mr. Smotrich was made minister of finance, proposing “to follow the Torah”; then, “we’ll be rewarded with financial abundance and great blessings.” He has also held portfolios of defence and transport minister, and last year was handed authority to manage the West Bank’s civil administration.

Experts, including right-wing nationalists, fear his control over the occupied territory can be “dangerous” if he “acts like a bull in a China shop”. Mr. Smotrich draws support from the settler community movement. A former political colleague of Mr. Smotrich said in a report: “He’s very cunning, he’s conniving, he’s deceptive, but he’s very good at politics.”

Mr. Smotrich has supported Mr. Netanyahu’s bid to pass the contentious judicial reform Bill (which puts guardrails on judicial activism) but insists that Mr. Netanyahu still be tried for his corruption charges. His party has accused Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud of attempting to “trample, humiliate and belittle” their ideology. Journalist Eliav Breuen explained the fissures in an article: the post-election Mr. Netanyahu “is sensitive to the U.S. administration... and does not envision the state’s Jewish character in the same way Smotrich does”.

A man of beliefs

Mr. Smotrich is an “ideologue, first and foremost”, recalled his colleague Mr. Yogev in a report.

The Zionist leader has said in interviews the LGBTQ+ community is “abnormal”; women should get married and ‘have a lot of children for Israel’s sake’. It is the “most natural and normal thing” for Arab and Jewish women to be segregated in maternity wards. Mr. Smotrich’s biblical mandates have their limit: he may be a “proud homophobe”, but he refuses to “stone gays” to death.

Mr. Yogev added that his “desire to strengthen the Jewish people, to retain [the West Bank] and to strengthen religious values constitute his core political values”. The conservative leader has packaged the first two consistently, most coherently in a text called the ‘Decisive Plan’, published in 2017 as a vision of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For Palestinian people, there were three possibilities: they leave the occupied territories, continue to live as second-class citizens, and if they choose to resist, “the Israel Defence Forces will know what to do”. Political scholars argued that Mr. Smotrich’s remarks about Palestinian people and “erasing villages” reveal “his admiration for the biblical genocidaire Joshua bin Nun”; these words also breach international law and “induced others to commit war crimes”.

More than once, Mr. Smotrich has expressed a desire for Israel’s judicial system to be based on the biblical Torah law – the treatise that distinguishes Jewish people from everyone else. Some members of the religious-nationalism community told the media that Mr. Smotrich’s “extreme” views were located on the fringe of far-right politics and were proving “divisive and dangerous”.

The Smotrich era

With Israel’s recent violence in Palestine, a “Smotrich vision”, as writer Orly Noy put it, has seeped into Israeli consciousness, and “is now even more extreme than the text of the plan itself.” Mr. Smotrich has discredited the two-state solution, repeating his “singular” answer: Gazans’ voluntary emigration and a “full [Israeli] security control including renewed settlement.”

Mr. Smotrich recently suggested Israel should switch its war tactic with Hamas, less dialogue and more “fire and brimstone”. In the Bible, the phrase represents God’s wrath. Publishing plans that sound like the Endgame and speaking of unfinished jobs, Mr. Smotrich resembles a man on a mission: unleash more fire and violence on the occupied lands.

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