Making extremism popular
Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich during a Knesset committee meeting, January 11, 2016.
Later, in October, “he got into a shouting match with Arab lawmaker MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) over the charitable tax status of Amnesty Israel, the Israeli branch of Amnesty International, which Smotrich argued was an anti-Israel organization that should not enjoy the tax benefits given to nonprofits.
“The debate quickly grew tense, and veered off into an argument about affirmative action for Arabs in academia. ‘Arab students are getting into the Technion because they’re lowering the minimum requirements due to affirmative action,’ Smotrich charged.” Times of Israel, October 27th, 2016. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90
He has transformed himself from radical activist into a mainstream politician with an extremist manifesto
By Emma Graham-Harrison, The Observer
March 12, 2017
Bezalel Smotrich has backed segregated maternity wards separating Jewish and Arab mothers, called for government reprisal attacks on Palestinians and once organised a homophobic “Beast Parade” protest against Gay Pride. He is also a member of Israel’s Knesset, a confident polemicist and increasingly prominent political figurehead for the country’s ascendant far-right.
Like the far-right European and American politicians who have upended the political order further west, his stock in trade is drawing fringe beliefs into the political mainstream, shifting the centre of debate.
A commitment to defending settlements on Palestinian land, deemed illegal under international law, runs through his personal and political life. He was born in one, lives in one now and, in one of his most recent forays into controversy, he likened the evacuation of Amona, an outpost deemed illegal by Israel’s own courts, to “a brutal rape”.
The whole land of Israel is mine, religiously, historically and in practical terms
He wants the Israeli military to be able to shoot to kill when children throw stones, flatly rejects a two-state solution and believes Jews have a divine right to all land that made up biblical Israel, he told Haaretz newspaper in a recent interview. “Looking after my people means that the whole land of Israel is mine, religiously, historically and also in practical terms,” he said. “I abort their [Palestinian] hopes of establishing a state.”
Yet with “brains, humour and courage”, the 37-year-old is “a far greater danger than your average rightwing clown”, Haaretz interviewer Ravit Hecht concluded after weeks shadowing him at meetings and events. Smotrich has transformed himself from radical activist to an influential, if fringe politician, in little more than a decade.
In 2005, he was arrested by the Shin Bet security services for his role in protests over Israel’s plans to withdraw from Gaza, allegedly on suspicion of planning to block roads and damage infrastructure to try to block the withdrawal. He was released without charges being brought, set up an influential rightwing NGO dealing with land issues and, since being elected to parliament in 2015, has been honing his political skills and rapidly increasing his profile.
He was a key figure behind two controversial recent bills, one legalising the annexation of Palestinian land, the other barring supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign from entering Israel.
Both drew fierce criticism at home and from the international community. Even rightwing stalwart and former Likud minister Dan Meridor called the land grab law “evil and dangerous”, while critics of the BDS law warned it would isolate and undermine Israel. They are both likely to face serious legal challenges.
But Smotrich was triumphant, celebrating the passage of the land law as a “historic” achievement. Soon afterwards, activists discovered that Smotrich stood to benefit personally from the change, as his house was built on disputed land covered by the new ruling.
That should have been badly damaging to the father of six, who has built up a political reputation as an “ordinary” man of modest means, even as corruption scandals swirled around prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his circle. But he simply shrugged off revelations and returned to his political campaigning, including the law barring BDS supporters.
He is open about his desire for a top ministerial post, heading defence or justice, but although his Jewish Home party is part of the ruling coalition, Smotrich has not been trying to curry favour with Netanyahu. Instead, he denounced one of Israel’s most hardline rulers as a coward and “not right wing”, pushing as always to drive the government and political debate even further right.
“A healthy person – who loves those who love him and hates those who hate him – doesn’t turn the other cheek,” Smotrich said after the BDS law went though. But growing political support for his trenchant politics of division is unlikely to bring peace closer for anyone caught up in the region’s bitter, long-running conflict.