As Netanyahu Nears Power, the Far Right Wants to Oversee the Army

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 the police.

Mr. Smotrich’s ambitions also underline the difficult balance that Mr. Netanyahu must now strike as he tries to finalize his government.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at an election-night event in Jerusalem this month. Mr. Netanyahu needs to persuade his coalition partners to agree to the makeup of his cabinet and their shared policy platform.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

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.

What to Know About Israel’s Latest Election

The country held its fifth election in less than four years on Nov. 1.

  • Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, is set to return to power with a new, far-right coalition that will once again make him prime minister.
  • The Far Right’s Rise: To win the election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity.
  • What’s Next for the Left?: After a near wipeout, the leaders of Israel’s left-leaning parties say they need to change — but disagree on how.
  • Worries Among Palestinians: To some Palestinians, the rise of Israel’s far right can scarcely make things worse. But many fear a surge of violence.

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 group.

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. Smotrich lives.

“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 his ally.

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.

Itamar Ben-Gvir in Tel-Aviv, Israel, in October. While Mr. Ben-Gvir is seen as a driving force behind the victory of the far right in the elections, Mr. Smotrich is seen as having a clearer long-term vision.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

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 itself.

“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.

An Israeli soldier at a guard post near the homes of Jewish families in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, this month.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

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.

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