'The Left Made Israel More Moral, but Their Mistakes Made Them Irrelevant'

Ideological right-wing MK Bezalel Smotrich devoted his life to destroying the two-state solution. In an interview he says the left's fixation with it is 'like getting addicted to drugs to escape reality'

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MK Bezalel Smotrich outside the Knesset, July 2020.
MK Bezalel Smotrich outside the Knesset, July 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

MK Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) is the ideological right’s most prominent figure. He has devoted his life to fighting to keep the entire Land of Israel and destroying the two-state solution – whether as an activist detained by the Shin Bet security service during the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 or as a right-wing Knesset member.

Interestingly, Smotrich thinks the left hasn’t failed completely. He argues that the two-state solution has become deeply rooted in the Israeli debate, and even in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mindset.

“The left should get a Nobel Prize for creativity,” he said. “It took a fiction and branded it as the ultimate solution, the only solution, for many years.”

Smotrich argues that even though the public still clings to the slogan of dividing the land, it understands deep down that this is unrealistic. And that is why the left, which pushes this idea, has become irrelevant, he says.

'Unlike the left, we’ve invested a lot in persuading the public that we’re right. And slowly, we’re succeeding'

“The left thought for many years that it had someone to talk to, that what interests the Arabs is getting a state of their own,” he said. “And I think reality has shown – again and again – that more than the Arabs want a state of their own, they want our state not to exist.”

The two-state solution has never worked, he argues – not in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, not in the 1993 Oslo Accord, not at the Camp David summit in 2000, not at the Annapolis conference in 2007, and not in the negotiations led by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-14.

“That’s because Arab rejectionism against us – after all, we always agreed and they always rejected any agreement – isn’t accidental; it’s the essence,” he said. “The entirety of Palestinian nationalism was created as a movement opposing Zionism. That’s its entire raison d’etre. Thus the moment they recognize our existence as a Jewish state, they’re pulling the rug out from under their right to exist as a national movement. They will become Arabs like all the other Arabs.”

What is the root of this misunderstanding?

MK Bezalel Smotrich on a Knesset committee tour of the Western Wall in 2016.
MK Bezalel Smotrich on a Knesset committee tour of the Western Wall in 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

“I think one of the left’s biggest problems is its difficulty coping with unsolvable problems and its attempt to solve them by denying and distorting reality. I’m willing to accept that right now, there are 5 million Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – on both sides of the Green Line – who don’t accept Israel’s existence. This situation is currently unsolvable.”

Based on what do you say there are 5 million Arabs who don’t accept Israel’s existence? Have you checked them one by one?

‘The entirety of Palestinian nationalism was created as a movement opposing Zionism. That’s its entire raison d’etre.'

“This is the founding ethos of the Palestinian national movement. The whole argument over the 1967 lines is a Palestinian tactic. It’s Arafat’s and the PLO’s phased plan,” he said, referring to the late founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, and his 1974 plan to destroy Israel in stages.

“Netanyahu’s only demand of the Palestinians over the last 10 years has been that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The leftists here laughed at him: ‘We need recognition?’

“But this demand reveals the root issue. When [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi goes to the podium in the Knesset and talks about two states, I ask him, ‘Ahmad, one is Palestinian, what about the other? Are you willing to say the word “Jewish”?’ Certainly not.”

You believe someone like Ahmad Tibi, who has also been interviewed for this series and called on Israeli Jews to join him in combating racism, is interested in expelling both you and me?

MK Betzalel Smotrich sitting in front of a tree as soldiers walk by in the evicted settlement of Sa Nur.
MK Bezalel Smotrich at the evicted settlement of Sa Nur.Credit: Emil Salman

“Deep in his heart? Absolutely. But don’t ask me about specific individuals, because I don’t know what’s going on in each person’s mind. There may be individual Arabs who have no such aspiration. I’m talking about the collective, and I’m talking about what Ahmad Tibi represents.

“Tibi denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The question isn’t whether he wants to expel me and you as individuals, but whether he wants to expel Jewish nationhood from the Land of Israel.”

How about Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh?

‘The morality of the Zionist project can’t be judged by the question of whether it involved some degree of tragedy for any person or group’

“The same thing. There’s no difference. The Joint List’s rhetoric is total nationalism. It’s not just solidarity with relatives on the other side of the line. They view their national identity as a Palestinian identity, and like I said, Palestinian identity is in opposition to Israeli and Jewish identity.

“I’m certain there are many individuals who value what they gain from the Jewish and democratic state, something none of their relatives have, and never will have in any format if, heaven forbid, any kind of Palestinian state arises, and it makes no difference whether it’s like Hamas in Gaza or a bit more enlightened. Look at life in Arab countries.”

Why do you believe life there looks like that?

“I don’t know. I know enough to say that in Israel, there’s a great deal of divine help, and there’s the Jewish brain. Thank God, the State of Israel is a miracle.”

Bezalel Smotrich, now an MK, sitting in court after being arrested for allegedly blocking roads at a protest against the disengagement in 2005.
Bezalel Smotrich, now an MK, sitting in court after being arrested for allegedly blocking roads at a protest against the disengagement in 2005.Credit: Moti Kimche

So you’re saying there’s a genuine biological difference here.

“I wasn’t talking about a biological difference; I was talking about divine assistance. I view Israel as a kind of fulfillment of a prophetic vision. No nation that has tried to hang on to this land has succeeded. There have been many conquerors here, but none managed to really hang on here. And look, we returned.”

‘Like a drug addiction’

Smotrich also offers another explanation for what he views as the left’s blindness, one he describes as “more psychological.”

“Israel lived from 1948 until the Six-Day War [of 1967] with a daily feeling of existential distress,” he said. “Suddenly, in the Six-Day War, we received an ‘asset’ we thought we could trade to get rid of the danger and our sense of barely surviving. It came from a sense of ‘Enough! We can no longer live in distress, anxiety, fear.’ And that’s a very natural process.

“Except got wrapped up in an illusion: the thought – which, obviously, I also don’t agree with on a moral level, since I don’t see Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] as an asset to negotiate with – that if I give this asset to the other side, in exchange I’ll receive legitimacy for existing within the 1948 lines. It’s like getting addicted to drugs to escape reality.”

Smotrich speaking from the Knesset podium during a debate on a bill to circumvent the High Court of Justice.
Smotrich speaking from the Knesset podium during a debate on a bill to circumvent the High Court of Justice. Credit: Adina Walman / Knesset spokesman

One of the most memorable of my many encounters with Smotrich took place at the Supreme Court toward the beginning of Israel’s three rounds of elections over the past year. The court was hearing Michael Ben Ari’s appeal against the disqualification of his Knesset candidacy. Ben Ari had been running on the same list as Smotrich and Rabbi Rafi Peretz.

Smotrich entered the courtroom, and within minutes, he was arguing with Supreme Court President Esther Hayut. “I’m asking you to respect the Knesset,” he said. “We respect you, and we represent the sovereign, so I’m asking you, madam, not to show contempt for us.”

This argument is perhaps the essence of much of Smotrich’s battle against what he sees as the left’s power centers.

“The left, ever since the upset of 1977, has transferred democracy’s center of balance from majority rule, or rule by the people, to the rule of law,” he said, referring to the year the left lost the election for the first time since Israel’s establishment. “It tried to find ways to circumvent democracy by taking over power centers.

“Democracy moved from being about what the majority can do to being about what the majority can’t do. This switch was a deliberate process.”

Smotrich argued that the first victim of this was the left itself. The right “knows how to deal with this. It will take us another few years, but we’ll pass the override clause and fix this damage,” he explained, referring to legislation allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions.

“But the left, because it invested all its effort in those institutions, absolved itself of trying to connect to the people and convince them. So aside from the fact that this isn’t democratic, the outcome is a backlash. And the result is evident.”

Nevertheless, he noted, “On many issues, the left didn’t fail. Don’t be so depressed. The left had great success in inculcating the language of rights, some of which I definitely identify with. And it brought the world, and Israel, to a better, more moral place. Fundamentally, I like the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

“But as usual, the left takes everything to extremes and forgets balance, like balancing individual rights versus national values. And on this point, obviously, I have a profound dispute with it.”

MK Bezalel Smotrich speaking with MK Tamar Zandberg at the President’s Residence in 2019.
MK Bezalel Smotrich speaking with MK Tamar Zandberg at the President’s Residence in 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

I interviewed Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem, who denounced Israel at the UN Security Council. He told me he seeks to encourage international pressure on Israel in the form of economic penalties and sanctions. How do you believe this should be dealt with?

“I believe this is illegitimate, but I don’t think I can deprive him of his right to do it. Let’s assume a bill was submitted saying that just like it’s illegal to support the Nazis, despite all the obvious differences, it’s also illegal to work toward sanctions on Israel – just like the boycott law, which blocks anyone calling for boycotts against Israel to receive any state benefits. I think that’s legitimate, though I’m not stating my position at the moment, since I haven’t thought about this in depth.

“Nevertheless, there’s a clear boundary. If someone knowingly spies or commits treason, the state use the criminal justice system to deal with him. But if someone thinks he’s acting for the good of the country, like Hagai El-Ad, I can’t stop him from doing so. However, I won’t help him.”

You mentioned support for the Nazis. You know the left thinks you are one.

“There’s another reason why the left has failed. Anyone in touch with the Israeli experience and the trauma of the Holocaust couldn’t call a Jew a Nazi.”

Your plan calls to encourage Arabs to emigrate by paying them. To me, this sounds like transfer.

“Okay, but transfer still doesn’t make me a Nazi.”

'The left, ever since the election upset of 1977 tried to find ways to circumvent democracy by taking over power centers'

Transfer is a democratic act? A humane one?

“Voluntary transfer?”

That’s an oxymoron. It’s like saying “voluntary rape.”

“Behavior shaping is done all the time. When we pay child allowances, we’re encouraging births, and when [Yair] Lapid cut the allowances, he was discouraging births.

“I’m allowed to encourage people to leave via economic incentives, international cooperation and so forth, in order to preserve the Jewish majority. It’s 1,000 times more moral, even if it does have certain drawbacks, than leaving them here and continuing to fight them and rule over them.

“But I want to return for a moment to the Nazi question. I, as a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors, can’t understand a person who dares to compare anything to the Holocaust – the death camps, genocide, the murder of 6 million Jews. I can’t.

Protesters with signs stating “Smotrich is Kahana” in 2019.
Protesters with signs stating “Smotrich is Kahana” in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The only people who can do this are those disconnected from the public, who don’t live the Israeli experience. When the late Prof. Zeev Sternhell wrote that I’m a Nazi, his audience was Haaretz readers. That’s his milieu; that’s where he wanted to win applause.”

You know Prof. Sternhell was a Holocaust survivor. Aside from the fact that he’s considered one of the world’s greatest scholars of fascism.

“He was still disconnected. This experience doesn’t interest him. Go out into the street right now, and out of 10 Israelis, nine will tell you it’s illegitimate for either side to use the Holocaust.

“There are also stupid right-wingers who call leftists Nazis. But anyone who cares and doesn’t want to be disconnected from the public doesn’t do this.”

Please explain the right’s insistence on not showing empathy for the victims of the terrible explosion in Lebanon.

“Once again, there’s confusion here between individuals and the national collective. The great danger, and [Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai gave proof of this when he lit up city hall with Lebanon’s national flag, is that personal empathy will turn into national conceptual confusion. Because the moment you blur the boundary and the other side is no longer an enemy, you won’t fight it.”

‘Bibi spotted the sovereignty slogan’

The recent talk about annexing parts of the West Bank led Smotrich to return to being one of Netanyahu’s biggest opponents on the right. He says the prime minister led the public astray with all his talk about sovereignty.

At first, back when he was still a cabinet member, he kept his opinion on U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan vague.

Smotrich with fellow Yamina MKs Rafi Peretz and Ayelet Shaked on election night in September 2019.
Smotrich with fellow Yamina MKs Rafi Peretz and Ayelet Shaked on election night in September 2019.Credit: David Bachar

How do you explain the difference between your position back then, when you were a cabinet member, and your harsh statements now?

“The plan was presented differently to us, both by Netanyahu and by the Americans. They told us, ‘Listen, there’s a written plan, there’s lip service, we need to look like an honest broker to the Europeans and the moderate Arab states. Don’t worry; we put conditions in there so it won’t happen.’ They promised that the map was conceptual, and could be amended.

'Netanyahu ‘doesn’t call it a [Palestinian] state .... But ultimately Netanyahu wants to divide the land, set up an independent entity and give this entity part of the Land of Israel.'

“In my view, the map is 90 percent of the issue, because if it’s a map that shows settlement contiguity and severs Palestinian contiguity, there won’t be a Palestinian state. If it’s a map that severs our contiguity, then there will be a Palestinian state. The moment the Americans rejected the Israelis’ map and insisted on their map, I understood the plan was bad for us.”

There were two camps around Trump, he says – the one led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the one led by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, “who is farther right than I am. Okay? What happened was that Kushner’s camp won, at least for now.”

Listening to Smotrich talk about Netanyahu, one might think the prime minister was one of the biggest champions of a two-state solution.

“The Trump plan is the Bar-Ilan speech,” Smotrich said, referring to a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University in which Netanyahu laid out his terms for a two-state solution. “He wrote it, not Trump. He thinks he brought us separation on ideal terms, but effectively, he brought us the left’s rationale.

“Netanyahu has believed in a Palestinian state since the Bar-Ilan speech. He wants defensible borders, no refugees, and other things; he wants it disarmed. But he wants a Palestinian state.

“But what’s the problem? He knows that if he brings a two-state solution, he’ll be slaughtered on the right. So he spotted the sovereignty slogan, which we turned into a strong slogan, and said, ‘I’ll steal this slogan and push a plan for a Palestinian state wrapped up in sovereignty.’”

Netanyahu also said that a Palestinian state won’t arise in our times.

“So he doesn’t call it a state. Netanyahu is a champion at wordsmithing, at combining labels and terms. But ultimately Netanyahu wants to divide the land, set up an independent entity and give this entity part of the Land of Israel, because he lacks any sentiment for the entire Land of Israel, which is an ideological and religious sentiment, and he doesn’t think he has the moral right to rule over a foreign people.”

Do you have a mandate to rule over a foreign people?

“Absolutely. Yes.”

By what right?

“The morality of the Zionist project can’t be judged by the question of whether it involved some degree of tragedy for any person or group, just like the morality of a war isn’t judged by the question of whether innocents were hurt. You try to reduce the harm, but even if innocents were hurt, that doesn’t mean the war was unjust.

“The Zionist project is the world’s most just and moral project in recent centuries. Was it a tragedy for the Arabs? Perhaps. But in order for there to be a Jewish state here, I can’t grant Palestinian nationalism self-determination and territory right now, because it will use this to destroy me, just as it is doing now in Gaza and in all the territory we fled.”

In your diplomatic plan, you wrote, “Our belief in the justness of our path is what gives us the moral right to win and to defeat the Arabs’ aspiration.” That sounds to me like auto-suggestion by someone who knows he ought to feel guilt.

MK Bezalel Smotrich at a memorial ceremony for assassinated Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2016.
MK Bezalel Smotrich at a memorial ceremony for assassinated Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2016. Credit: Miriam Alster / Flash90

“If I’m the party in the right, I have no reason to feel guilt. I have the Bible and history. Fortunately, 95 percent of the left doesn’t deny this.

“Even [Meretz MK] Tamar Zandberg talks about the need to be pained at parting from the land of the Bible. She doesn’t deny that Judea and Samaria are part of the biblical Land of Israel, which was promised to the Jewish people and is where the Jewish people lived and became established. Our first state arose in Judea and Samaria, not in Tel Aviv.”

Most Israelis don’t know where Shiloh is and were never at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. These places aren’t important to them. They may be afraid of the Arabs and think we have to fight them, but they aren’t in sync with your religious values.

“In the early years, we built the settlements, and over the past 20 years or so, we’ve been busy with a great deal of public diplomacy through Torah garinim [groups of religious Zionist Israelis who receive funding to live in majority secular locations and do religious outreach], tours of Judea and Samaria, online classes, video clips and selling products from Judea and Samaria worldwide,” he responded.

“Unlike the left, we’ve invested a lot in persuading the public that we’re right. And slowly, we’re succeeding.”

‘Bennett wants to be prime minister’

After previously serving as transportation minister, and after having split from and then rejoined Yamina leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayalet Shaked, Smotrich may now be where he’s most ideologically comfortable – as part of a fighting right-wing opposition.

Is Netanyahu still the leader of the right?

“He was the right’s leader up until the moment when he broke up the right-wing bloc and said that what matters now is a government by Netanyahu, not a government by the right. He sold the right to the left. My vote is equal to one-third of yours, because the 52 right-wing MKs in this Knesset received the same power in the coalition as 17 MKs from the left.”

You’ve defended him all along. You’re the one who, before the first election in April 2019, proposed an amendment to the parliamentary immunity law. Don’t you feel a bit idiotic?

“Our commitment to the right-wing bloc over the past year wasn’t a commitment to Netanyahu as a person. We’re right-wing people.”

Is Naftali Bennett also committed first and foremost to ideology?

“I don’t know. I think so, but I’m speaking primarily about myself. I had no alternative. The ultra-Orthodox can go with whoever pays the most; I can’t.”

When you ran on a separate ticket, you said that Bennett and Shaked weren’t interested in leading religious Zionism.

“They say this today as well. Naftali wants to be prime minister. He thinks leading religious Zionism isn’t big enough for him.

Is he better than Netanyahu?

“You know, in the end, you also have to be realistic, okay? Come on, look at the map.”

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