The Face of Israel's Far Right Wants to 'Abort' Palestinian Hope

And he thinks Netanyahu is a coward. Meet Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich, who envisions a Greater Israel where the Palestinian Authority doesn't exist and who believes Reform Jews and LGBT people are living a lie.

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Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich.
Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Bezalel Smotrich, a first-time Knesset member from the Bayit Hayehudi party, already has earned himself a reputation as one of the most brilliant and influential members of the house. He is proud to be the Knesset’s right-wing bellwether, and is perceived as radical even within the national-religious milieu from which he emerged – the settlement movement. In the brief year and a half since he was sworn in, Smotrich has succeeded in guiding the direction of his party (through his leadership of the struggle to prevent the dismantling of the Amona outpost in the West Bank, and to pass the so-called formalization bill), and even that of the government.

Smotrich has become the powerhouse behind a wave of proposed legislation to advance the cause of the settlements and of judicial reform. As opposed to many politicians who have emerged from the margins, Smotrich doesn’t hanker for legitimacy from the political mainstream. Rather, he views himself as being situated in the heart of the system and the establishment. “I don’t feel like a fifth wheel, or like a guest in the state,” says Smotrich, “and therefore it is completely legitimate for me to try to influence and mold it according to my belief system.”

Just about the only stipulation Smotrich and his media adviser laid down for the interview we conducted, one of a series of conversations and encounters I had with him during the past month, was that we not talk about the “community” (the LGBT community, that is). That surprised me, because, even though I myself am a “member of the community” – that was the last thing that interested me about the legislator from Habayit Hayehudi.

Last spring, after Smotrich made comments justifying segregation of Jewish and Arab mothers in hospital maternity wards, I published a piece in which I characterized him as a racist, but even then I realized that he’s no mere primitive low-life. And indeed, after weeks and weeks during which I joined him at different events and accompanied him at long, drawn-out meetings, that early qualification was only reinforced: Those who make do with Smotrich’s comments about the LGBT community (“There was a time I would say that I was a proud homophobe, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was, but since then I’ve learned the lesson, and don’t use words whose meaning I don’t completely understand”) is missing a far more complex figure. One with assets such as brains, humor and courage, on the one hand, but on the other, someone who constitutes a far greater danger than your average right-wing clown.

Sometimes it seems like Smotrich has a hand in everything. Besides his efforts on behalf of the settlement enterprise and his attempts to weaken the courts and divide up the powers now held by the attorney general, he is also behind efforts to reduce the powers of the Shin Bet – or, in his words, to heighten supervision of the security service. Smotrich is very active as well with regard to social-economic legislation. Talk with his Knesset colleagues and they will tell you how he twists his party, the government and the coalition around his little finger. “He sits in committees and threatens the whole world,” is the kind of comment you will.

He and I are the same age – 36. He grew up in the veteran West Bank settlement of Beit El; his father is a rabbi. Smotrich lives in the settlement of Kedumim with his wife, Revital, and their six children (five sons and a baby daughter). I grew up in a secular family in Haifa and live with a female partner in Tel Aviv. (“You understand why we will win?” he asks me, laughing, at our first meeting.)

In the course of our conversations we each showed an interest in the other’s household. (“What do you call your girlfriend?” he asked me. “’My wife’?”) Between arguments over ideology, history and morality, we also talked about mortgages, children and parenthood, personal relationships and other topics of interest to people in their mid-thirties.

The more comfortable I felt with him, the more apparent it became that the ideological abyss between us was unbridgeable. As someone who, by his own description, likes to make declarations, it doesn’t look as though his move into the heart of Israeli civic life is going to moderate him. Smotrich intends to pull the center in his direction.

In the background of our encounters was the ongoing struggle to save Amona and to pass the formalization bill, which would legalize the status of such outposts and the expansion of the settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land. Or, in the language of the legislation that Smotrich himself drew up: “To enable the legalization of settlements in Judea and Samaria that were built or expanded without an orderly planning process by Israelis in good faith, or in whose establishment and construction the state was a partner.”

As this article went to process, the exact future of the bill was a subject of debate within the coalition, but the very fact that it had advanced as far as it already had in the legislation process – last month, the bill passed a first vote in the Knesset, over the objections of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was a tribute to the determination and ingenuity of Bezalel Smotrich.

Smotrich himself is thriving. He lives with the feeling that he is helping to make history. Contrary to assessments that the proposal to legalize settlements will be buried at the committee stage and Amona will be dismantled, Smotrich is sure the bill will in the end be enacted and that Amona will be saved. “Good morning, Amona!” he shouted into the microphone at a support rally held at the outpost during Sukkot, which he attended with his children.

The settlement community is his home court, where he’s loved and esteemed. He’s a major optimist, but no less important, it’s important for him to project success, to speak with exclamation marks. This tactic has become second nature for him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

'Netanyahu is not right-wing … He created a misimpression that a consensus exists between right and left over the two-state solution. It's not true.'

“During the past months, I’ve been saying, ‘Naftali, come on, it will happen.’ And, thank God, in recent weeks he got it,” Smotrich says, referring to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of Habayit Hayehudi. “As always, in the past three weeks the average Israeli understands that he has a problem: The DNA of Habayit Hayehudi won’t allow itself to remain in a government that dismantles Amona without a significant strategic solution. But a solution exists.”

What will you do if Amona is eventually dismantled?

“It will be very difficult, not to say impossible, to remain in a government that evacuates Amona.”

The prime minister doesn’t believe in your program, and part of the right wing doesn’t see your ideology as legitimate.

“Excuse me, but unfortunately, Netanyahu is not right-wing. Until Netanyahu arrived on the scene, it was clear there was right and left. When the left is in power, you can have talk of a two-state solution, and when the right is in power, there's nothing to talk about. He created a misimpression that a consensus exists between right and left over the two-state solution. It's not true, it erodes people's consciousness, and does damage to the positions and interests of Israel. I meet with members of the U.S. Congress who say to me, ‘Do you want me to be holier than the pope? Your prime minister talks about a two-state vision, so do you want us to be more right-wing than him?’

“At the same time, just because he isn’t annexing land, it doesn’t mean he thinks the settlements aren’t legitimate. Netanyahu is acting under constraints. I don’t back him on this issue. If I were prime minister, I would behave completely differently, and if Bennett were prime minister, I’m sure he’d behave completely differently.”

Then Smotrich adds, with regard to the two-state solution, “Twenty wise men can’t remove a stone that a fool throws into a well. There is an international commitment [to two states], and we have ‘friends’ here at home who act like informers and create pressures. I am braver than Netanyahu, and maybe I have greater faith in the rightness of our way. The world didn’t like the application of Israeli law in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but the sky didn’t fall; and by the same token, the world won’t like the application of Israeli law to Ma’aleh Adumim, but will accept it, and from there we will go on to apply Israeli law to all of Judea and Samaria. Of course, there will be ‘good Jews,’ such as Haaretz and others, who will call for and demand sanctions against Israel.”

So, you think that if it weren’t for Haaretz, the international community would accept annexation gladly?

“I wasn’t referring specifically to Haaretz, and I didn’t say ‘gladly.’ The international community didn’t accept Israel’s establishment, either.”

It was the international community that decided to establish Israel.

“Probably if Netanyahu had been there instead of [David] Ben-Gurion, a state would not have come into being. Ben-Gurion had courage: Against all the odds, he established a state.”

‘I’m not protecting some lunatic’

Let’s start from the beginning. We agree that Amona stands on privately owned land?

“In part.”

And you have no problem with that?

“I am not protecting some lunatic – not even in the legalization law – who, because he felt like it, seized some mound of earth and along the way also violently expelled someone else. The state established this outpost. Do you know that in [the evacuated and relocated West Bank outpost of] Migron, too, the state drew up a master plan? The plan states who the owners of the land were – they were certain that it was state land. The [land] registration in Judea and Samaria is secret. The method of acquiring the rights under Ottoman law is based on one’s working the land and on possession. A place that is worked has owners, a place that is not worked belongs to the state. People saw bald rocky hills, so the state came in.

“In the 20 years that have passed since Oslo, Israeli governments have wanted to establish settlements but didn’t want to anger the Americans, so all the governments proceeded quietly. It’s not private people, or even the settlement movements but the governments of Israel that established outposts, for all kinds of reasons – security-related, political, ideological – each outpost for its own reasons.”

Even by your definition, in which it was well-meaning people and the state that established an outpost, it’s still a violation by the state of international law. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying force is prohibited from transferring a population to an occupied area.

“To begin with, Judea and Samaria is not occupied territory. First, because we did not conquer it from any sovereign whose hold on the territory was recognized. The Jordanian occupation was flagrantly illegal and was not recognized by international law or the United Nations. The last binding and valid international decision was at San Remo [the 1920 conference that determined the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire’s holdings in the Middle East], and afterward the terms of the [British] Mandate, which allots the whole of the western part of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.”

And nothing has happened since 1922 at the United Nations, such as Resolution 181 – the partition resolution of 1947 – which is the legal and historical basis for Israel’s establishment?

'Even if I have an international and legal right [to the land], the divine promise and our historical right are enough for me. The fact is that we were here 3,500 years ago.'

“The Arabs did not accept the partition resolution. Therefore, it did not acquire validity from the point of view of international law.”

That resolution is mentioned twice in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. You can’t rely on it when you establish a state and later deny it. Do you not recognize the international justification for Israel’s establishment?

“I want to hope that even Haaretz readers don’t want to go back to the partition plan, which not only did not include Judea and Samaria [as part of Israel], but other parts of the country as well. Israel’s official position is that this is not an area under belligerent occupation. Go onto the Foreign Ministry’s websites and you’ll see. We did not accept the Geneva Convention, because we knew it would be against us. After the 1967 war, then-Attorney General Meir Shamgar told the High Court of Justice: This is not occupied territory, [even if] from our point of view we accept the humanitarian directives of international law, so people will not say that we are hiding behind uncertainty in order to infringe on human rights.”

The International Court of Justice at The Hague decided in 2004 that the Geneva Convention applies in the territories, and that decision reflects the policy of all the world’s countries. The Israeli Supreme Court, too, asserted over the years that humanitarian obligations are not subject only to Israel’s good will.

“Everything rests, again, on this being occupied territory. And, again, we did not conquer it from a recognized sovereign. And even if we did, the Knesset has the authority to legislate otherwise – just as it applied Israeli law and jurisdiction to the Golan Heights, even though in terms of international law the Golan is occupied territory. I do not deny that we want to change agreed-upon notions.... Even if I have an international and legal right [to the land], the divine promise and our historical right are enough for me.

“The fact is that we were here 3,500 years ago. We weren’t born yesterday morning. We were expelled from here by force, and after 2,000 years, within the framework of the most just and most moral process that has occurred in the world in the past hundreds of years, we are returning to our home.”

‘I abort their hope’

What is your political-diplomatic plan?

Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich gives a talk in a Tel Aviv home, November 2016.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

'When they have no hope and no vision, they will go. As they did in 1948.'

“We are placing a different alternative on the table, a plan that is not based on the country’s partition, but on its unification. I want to apply [Israeli] sovereignty in all of Judea and Samaria.”

Only in Area C [where Israel has full control today], or also in A [where Palestinians oversee civilian affairs and security] and B [where Israel has control over security]?

“Everything. I apply sovereignty in all of Judea and Samaria.”

And thus create a Muslim state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River?

“No. I build another five big cities, bring in another half a million or a million Jews, but first of all I make a decision. The gist of my plan is based on making a determination. After a hundred years of conflict management, we make a decisive move vis-a-vis the conflict: I abort their hopes of establishing a state.”

How do you do that?

“When Joshua ben Nun [the biblical prophet] entered the land, he sent three messages to its inhabitants: those who want to accept [our rule] will accept; those who want to leave, will leave; those who want to fight, will fight. The basis of his strategy was: We are here, we have come, this is ours. Now too, three doors will be open, there is no fourth door. Those who want to leave – and there will be those who leave – I will help them. When they have no hope and no vision, they will go. As they did in 1948.”

And those who do not go and do not accept you as the sovereign power – in my view, that’s most of the Palestinians?

“Those who do not go will either accept the rule of the Jewish state, in which case they can remain, and as for those who do not, we will fight them and defeat them.”

How? Be concrete.

“With an army, with weapons. What do you mean, ‘how’? That’s what we did in 1948 – we fought and we won. We will fight, and we won’t fight with our hands tied, as they are today, the way the Israel Defense Forces has to fight, but in fact just continues to let the engine, the fuel, that drives terrorism, to operate. The Palestinian Authority is a terror-abetting body. What does ‘decide’ mean? It means to topple. We don’t even have to topple the PA, it can fall by itself. We only need to stop maintaining it. The IDF is told: You have to preserve a partner all the time. From my point of view, Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] is an enemy. He incites, he pays salaries to terrorists.”

You have 2.5 million people in the West Bank, not the PA or Abu Mazen, but people who can rise up against you in a popular intifada. Children who throw stones.

“That won’t happen. It won’t happen. If we show an iron hand, there won’t be children who throw stones. Anyone who throws stones will not be here.”

Why? What will you do with him?

“What will I do? Either I will shoot him or I will jail him or I will expel him. Ten years ago, [the IDF’s] Central Command coined the phrase, ‘Until the last olive,’ meaning that the Palestinians have to be allowed to harvest until they have picked the last olive, including in the settlements. I asked whether our forces had been issued a directive to crush terrorism until the last stone. I would issue an order that says, anyone who throws a stone – you are permitted to shoot to kill, because a stone can kill. A stone has killed more than once or twice.

“Do you remember the video clip in which a soldier’s helmet was pulled off [in an incident last year where IDF forces who tried to arrest a 12-year-old boy in Nabi Saleh were attacked by the female relatives]? As far as I am concerned, every encounter between a soldier and the enemy must end with an unequivocal decision. It ends, it hurts, it’s meaningful. That’s how you rehabilitate deterrence. That’s how you manage a war.

“And I claim that what I propose is far more moral, because the result of what you propose – the continued fostering of hope among the Palestinians – is the continuation of the management of a bloody conflict for a great many more years, at the price of friction and of harsh results for both sides: the blood that is spilled, and the detainees, and the infringement of human rights. I too agree that there are elements of the occupation that are not healthy in terms of what they do to us inwardly. That is why I want to be decisive.”

With half a million Palestinians killed? Is that the preservation of human rights?

“There won’t be half a million Palestinians killed, because no one wants to die. Guys, stop, don’t paint all kinds of horror pictures that are simply disconnected from reality. Today, the Arabs understand, and rightly so, that we lack determination, and that we are willing to have them play with us and willing for a boy to pull a soldier’s helmet off, and willing to let them throw stones, because stones aren’t so terrible, so why shouldn’t they throw them? On the day we convey the message that it’s over, on the day the IDF is ordered to crush terrorism to the last stone, it will do so, and not with hundreds of thousands killed.

“I will give you factual proof that I’m right. Which was the greater disaster for the Arabs, what do they call Nakba – 1948, or 1967? It’s 1948, right? How do you explain the fact that even though they call 1948 their greatest ‘catastrophe’ for decades – and rightly so, by the way – Israeli Arabs lived wonderfully under Jewish rule until the beginning of the 1990s? There was no terror, no violence, no identification with Palestinian nationalism, not even under the military government [under which Israel’s Arabs lived until 1966]. The nationalist extremism of the Israeli Arabs thus began at some point in the 1990s, when we, stupidly, brought [Yasser] Arafat and the PLO from Tunisia and fostered hope among the Arabs of Judea and Samaria.

“At which point the Israeli Arab says to himself, ‘Am I a retard? My brother, my cousin in Judea and Samaria, is about to defeat the Jews and get a state, and I, like an idiot, am behaving well in the Jewish state.’ Before 1948, they had aspirations, they had a vision, and in 1948 it was erased. We aborted it. They understood that; it was over. Those who wanted to leave, left, those who stayed understood and were grateful we gave them the right to stay. Alright?

“If they’d won, they would have slaughtered us all. We, in our idiocy, or because we are Jews, good people, let them stay.”

You consider that idiotic?

“No, no, no. I said, ‘because we are Jews,’ apparently. But there will be some who will look in from outside and say, ‘You’re retards.’”

What do you think could have been done differently?

“To put them on trucks, as was done to a large part of them, and to throw them all out. But we didn’t do that, because we are Jews and we are hospitable, and the moment the existential threat was removed and we won the battle, we agreed that they could stay here, and not only agreed but allowed them to enjoy all the abundance and technology and progress, and everything the Jewish state has to offer. They know very well that their life is a million times better than every one of their brethren 360 degrees around us – from every aspect, even if they allege discrimination. And there is no reason in the world why the same thing should not happen with the Arabs of Judea and Samaria. What happens when you abort one hope? You open another hope for a good, civil, private life.”

Do you think that you represent hope for any Palestinian?

“I don’t know. I represent myself. I first of all serve myself and represent myself, and what interests me is to look after my people. And I know that looking after my people means that the whole Land of Israel is mine, religiously, historically and also in practical terms.”

Women in wards

Do you really not understand why people think you are frightening?

“I say that what we have here is an attempt to demonize me. I think people are afraid of me because apparently I know what I am doing and I am also more successful. I pushed through the most laws in the previous Knesset session. I don’t get involved in lost causes from the outset; when I go into battles, I build them properly, and in most of them I succeed. And that’s what frightens people.”

I’m talking about your declarations, such as about women in obstetrics wards.

“Okay, take statements like the one about the women in the wards. According to media surveys, more than 50 percent of the Jewish public in Israel support separation [between Jews and Arabs] in obstetrics wards – which, by the way, is not what I said – 72 percent on the right, 86 percent in the religious-Zionist movement. So if you ask now where I am situated, believe me, I am in an excellent place.”

You don’t regret what you said?

“Absolutely not. Not for a moment did I say that I support, as a policy, separation of women who are giving birth.”

You just said it now. You said that was the subject of the survey.

“Yes, but I didn’t say it. Some people had an interest in saying that’s what I said, in demonizing me. All I said was that I understand the negative feelings of the Jewish women in the obstetrics wards toward the Arab women, against a background of a hundred years of war between us and the background of terror and other things. And I don’t want to take away the inner peace that women deserve after giving birth.

“Negative feelings can be anywhere on the scale between fear, anxiety, anger, hatred, and when there are enemies and war that’s legitimate, so I understand the feelings of a woman who is giving birth. It’s a natural, healthy feeling. In my view, a healthy person loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. People who love their haters are either shutting their eyes or are sick.

“And the investigative report [on Israel Radio, revealing that informal separation already exists between Arab and Jewish women in some maternity wards] was hypocritical, because the Arab women are not being left outside, not being given a room at the end of the corridor, and did being insulted... Judiciously, with common sense, the nurses have gradually arranged it so that everyone is satisfied. And then some media researcher comes along, and wants to take that away, too.”

Do you think all Arabs are the same, that they all want the same thing? After all, you and I are both Jews, and I don’t agree with a single word you’ve said.

“I didn’t say that all the Arabs are like that, and it follows that I also didn’t say that there is some specific Arab with whom I am unwilling to sit. But in the end, the war is between peoples, and therefore it’s legitimate for me to have negative feelings toward another people at the moment. By the way, there are things that people like you aren’t familiar with. You don’t live in Judea and Samaria. You don’t know what it is to lose a friend and a neighbor. You don’t know about children who wake up in the morning with nightmares. We live that. So the woman says, after giving birth, ‘Wow, right now, I don’t want [to share a room with] someone whom I consider to belong to my enemy.’ It’s not an abstract enemy, alright? He is very concrete. He throws stones at me on the way home. I live inside fences, because I am afraid he will penetrate my settlement and stab my neighbor, as happened in several settlements.”

Then why do you insist on living there?

“I live there because it’s mine. I live there because that is my ideology. I pay a price for living there. The settler public is heroic, devoted, idealistic, giving its soul when they die for it, but also giving its soul in life. They definitely limit themselves and live a more complex life, because they believe that this is the right thing and the good thing for the State of Israel and for Zionism and for the Land of Israel. When there is no more terror, there will be no more negative feelings, either.

“But to tell me, in today’s reality, to blur my feelings, these healthy feelings, is the worst possible thing because you lose the distinction between enemy and friend. That’s my difficulty with the left today. Until 30-40 years ago, the Israeli left also lived with a ‘war consciousness,’ alright? Ben-Gurion fought the Arabs more than I do. He’s the one who expelled them in 1948, not me, not the right, not the religiously observant and not the settlers. Because there was a healthy feeling, there was patriotism, identification, national pride, you knew that the other side was the other side.”

Portfolio preference

The events of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in 2005, were a formative period for Smotrich. It was then that he understood, he says, that the state was the strongest player on the field, and that he could wield far more influence from within the system.

“I saw how the state eliminated the work of 30 years [by the religious-Zionist movement] in a week,” he says, adding, “and the most powerful arena of the state is the judicial system.”

Smotrich went on to study law and acquire a master’s degree in international law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and established one of the most effective right-wing NGOs in terms of its influence on the ground. Called Regavim, the association tracks down illegal construction by Arabs in Israel and the territories, and looks for proof of Jewish land ownership. He then became an MK [in 2015]. Since then he’s flourished politically, challenging the settlers’ veteran leadership.

What is your ambition, to lead Habayit Hayehudi?

“Above all, I don’t want to look ridiculous, so I will not make declarations. I definitely would like to hold the positions of the greatest possible influence.”

Which ministerial portfolio interests you?

“I would want to be minister of defense.”

I would have thought minister of justice.

“Yes, the truth is that it’s the logical portfolio. Both are good and important. I wouldn’t cry if I got either of them. But if I were to be offered a meaningless portfolio, without content and without membership in the security cabinet and on the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, I would prefer to remain in the Knesset.”

Let’s talk a little about Jews you love somewhat less – Reform Jews, LGBTs.

“It’s not a matter of love but of legitimization. Look, I have a secular brother. I love him and he is my best friend, but I don’t accept him. I tell him: ‘My brother, you are wrong, you are living a life of lies.’ I was asked the same thing about the Reform Jews. On the one hand, I feel that the state should take responsibility for them. I love all Jews, really, all Jews are my brothers. But I do not accept them and I will not accord them legitimacy, because in my eyes they are a lie.”

Why do you say they are a lie? Do you like it when people say you are crazy or messianic?

“The big difference me – between Orthodox Judaism and Reform Jews – is that I believe in the existence of absolute truths. That is my life. The Lord is one. Not 30. He created the world and he gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. That is the meaning of ‘Torah from on high.’ Torah from on high is above me and I am bound to it. I cannot legitimize the distortion of the truth in the Jewish state. Just as I cannot legitimize Christianity.

“I admit that this is a great challenge. To say – not only to say, but really to persuade others – that you love someone and want him to feel at home but without your recognizing his way of life, is a difficult challenge. I also admit that at the moment I don’t have an answer to this issue.”

Shin Bet detention

Bezalel Smotrich has an emotionally charged relationship with the Shin Bet security service. As a Knesset member, he deals with many cases of Jewish security prisoners, speaks with the families, lobbies on their behalf through every available channel. But above all, he has had his own personal experience with the Shin Bet. In the months leading up to the so-called “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip in 2005, when Israel was awash in settler demonstrations, Smotrich was a prominent protester.

At the height of the struggle, he was arrested by the security service and detained for three weeks. “I was detained by the Shin Bet in conditions that are generally accorded to terrorists,” he says now, “and my rights, like meeting with an attorney, were denied. I was eventually released without an indictment and without anything. They simply carried out a ‘targeted assassination’ of the main activists in the field.”

What infractions were you suspected of?

“Membership in an organization that blocked roads. In my opinion, that is the most legitimate thing you can do.”

What about the stories about how you collected 700 liters of gasoline and other flammable substances, which appear about you in Wikipedia, among other sources?

“The first time I heard about that one was in the Zionist Union’s election campaign.”

It isn’t true? It didn’t happen?

“I’m telling you – it never happened.”

I found a news item from July 14, 2005, in Maariv that states: “Around midnight on Monday, Bezalel Smotrich, who serves as director of the yeshiva in Kedumim, as well as Ido Geniram, Moshe Guttman and Yedidya Leibovich – the brother of Elazar Leibovich of Hebron, who was murdered in July 2002 near Hebron – were arrested at Moshav Nehalim. About two hours later, another activist named Asher Wodka was arrested at his home. He is suspected of being linked to the group’s activities. These five individuals are suspected of being part of an attempt to damage various infrastructure facilities in the Tel Aviv area, including exchanges belonging to the Bezeq telephone company in the city. In addition, they were interrogated on suspicion of conspiring to commit a crime, intentionally endangering human life at a major transportation artery, and membership in an outlawed association.”

“Don’t you understand that these are legal terms for nothing? What is ‘endangering human life at a transportation artery’? It’s blocking a road.”

Hold on, that’s not all: “In a search of the home of one of the detainees, maps, flammable substances and oil were found. The police suspect that these materials served for the purpose of organizing public disturbances. The Shin Bet also investigated the possibility that the five individuals are linked to an incident in which oil was poured on Highway 1. However, due to the fact that they are not cooperating with their interrogators, the Shin Bet has not succeeded in finding a further basis for this suspicion.” What are these claims? Are all of these things fabrications?

“First of all, I didn’t have any involvement in this incident. But from what I know of what happened there, they physically blocked the highway and after some cars passed, they poured oil and hammered sharp metal pegs into the road. I don’t know what else they did to make sure that the road would be blocked for as long as possible. No one on the right ever considered pouring oil on a highway so people would get into car accidents.”

Why did the Shin Bet, not the police, arrest you?

“That was my precise complaint. Using the Shin Bet was part of the delegitimization that [Prime Minister] Arik Sharon used with respect to opponents of the disengagement. That is also why I maintained silence throughout my interrogation. I said that if I were interrogated by the police, I would cooperate. But I was not willing to talk with the Shin Bet. I was part of a totally democratic protest group. In a democracy, it is permissible to block roads. It is also okay to be punished for doing this. That’s all perfectly fine; it is part of a democratic process.”

“I did not agree to cooperate with the Shin Bet, which was being used by Sharon. And if there were any suspicions, then the police were supposed to be the group dealing with it. Where does this cross the line into security offenses? And what did they tell me at the Shin Bet? That its mandate includes a clause about political subversion. You want to thwart a political plan, so you are suspected of political subversion. Today the government has an economic program, too, so does that mean that any individual who blocks roads in protest of that economic program is a political subversive?"

According to Dvir Kariv, a field operative who, during the Gaza withdrawal, worked in the Shin Bet’s intelligence division that engaged in foiling terror in the non-Arab sector – there isn’t a judge or court that would have permitted a three-week detention if there had not been ample reason for it.

“If Smotrich wants to make it seem as if a senior – or a junior – Shin Bet official went to a judge and said, ‘I want to arrest him’ and they simply permitted it without much ado – then he is living in la la land,” Kariv told Haaretz. “There isn’t a single judge in Israel who would agree to be a rubber stamp.”

In response, Smotrich says, “I am not saying that the judges extend remand without having been given the impression that there is a basis to the charge. I am only claiming that I don’t know how serious this impression of theirs was. You have to be a judge with a lot of guts to release an individual in opposition to the position of the Shin Bet. The Shin Bet comes and shows you information. Who’s to say that it’s real? Who’s to say that the Shin Bet itself is not captive to a faulty line of reasoning? The judge doesn’t have the time or the ability to judge these things.

“If you are talking about the deportation [this is how Smotrich terms the Israeli pullout from the Strip in 2005], then yes, there the judges went beyond any accepted norm. There were wholesale extensions of arrests, prolonged detentions of minors – outrageous things that aren’t even done to Palestinian terrorists. It was all-out enlistment of the entire judicial system on behalf of Sharon’s deportation machine, with the trampling of every accepted legal norm. The system totally collapsed precisely when we needed it. The system is a big hero when it comes to infiltrators, but it did not stand up against this enormous tractor that crushed people’s rights. And I didn’t see the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or any of the other organizations, struggling on behalf of my rights. Everyone was enlisted in Arik Sharon’s machine. Everyone was guilty of it.”

When it comes to Smotrich's detention, it is difficult to get to the truth, principally because of the "conspiracy of silence" that surrounds what is called the "Jewish section" of the Shin Bet.

The Shin Bet declined to provide details on the circumstances of Smotrich’s 2005 detainment. MK Avi Dichter (Likud), who was head of Shin Bet at the time, also was unwilling to speak on the subject.

‘Swimming against the current

In spite of his irritation with the left, and as opposed to many of his colleagues on the right, Bezalel Smotrich can sometimes surprise in his attempts to find common ground with the same disparaged left. He opposed the Dismissal Law, which is intended to intimidate Arab members of Knesset (by making it possible to strip them of office if they engage in allegedly subversive activities); and he came out against the arrest of Ezra Nawi, the activist from the Israeli-Palestinian Ta’ayush NGO, who was detained after an investigative piece on the “Fact” television show about him; he opposed a bill that would deny financing to political parties that call for a boycott of the settlements (at the time, Smotrich said: “The funding should most certainly not be taken from them. I would argue with anyone who wishes to boycott goods from settlements; I would try to convince them that they are wrong; I would try to persuade the public not to listen to them. But I would not harm any political party because its positions are disliked by someone else.”

Moreover, Smotrich took issue with coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud), who came up with the idea of stripping the citizenship of Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, after the latter spoke at the UN’s Security Council; and he backed the High Court of Justice’s decision to release Palestinian hunger-striker Mohammed Allaan from administrative detention, saying: “I’m sorry that once again, I find myself swimming against the current of my colleagues on the right – who strongly condemn any decision from the High Court, almost automatically. But this time, although I really do not like its outcome, this is a perfectly legitimate decision,” Smotrich wrote on Facebook. “As someone who has serious reservations about judicial activism, I have to accept this decision by the High Court. This is exactly the role of the court in a democratic country.”

The MK wants to go on record that he would never say, as did Habayit Hayehudi colleague MK Moti Yogev, that “a D-9 bulldozer should be sent to the High Court of Justice.” Indeed, he has said that he would not want to live in a country without a supreme court, since, “As far as I’m concerned, that court plays a critical role in defending human rights in a democratic state – but not in deciding on controversial ethical issues.”

At present, Smotrich is trying to promote a “special advocate” bill, intended to bolster judicial review of the use of administrative detention (that is, detention of an individual without charges and without trial), and to improve the process by allowing submission of the confidential body of evidence used to justify the detention to a special attorney with a top-secret security clearance who would be appointed by the public defender’s office.

Smotrich: “What happens as part of a request for administrative detention is that a Shin Bet representative comes in with a big suitcase full of files and gives it to a judge. And the judge doesn’t really know how to read it, and doesn’t have the time, and so on. You have to be an extremely gutsy judge to take this whole suitcase, push it to the side, and tell the Shin Bet guy: ‘Listen, buddy, I am not authorizing this.’ So approval is practically automatic. We are now submitting a bill that would create a more significant judicial supervision mechanism.”

Smotrich claims to have enlisted support for his legislation from MK Michal Rozin of Meretz, on the left, and both Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid) and Avi Dichter, both former heads of the Shin Bet. Neither of them, however, when asked about the matter by Haaretz, seems to be rushing to sign off on the bill.

Perry explained that he has not yet made a final decision: “In the proposed wording of the legislation there are positive aspects,” he said, “but a few problems are evident, as well. I am looking into the nature of these difficulties in the coming days.”

Dichter, for his part, stated that he “is still considering the matter.”

Rozin, who, interestingly enough, calls Smotrich one of the smartest and sincerest people she knows, shared some worries about the bill: “I’ve consulted with jurists, and yes, this law could be beneficial for suspects, as there would finally be someone acting on their behalf who is privy to the materials. But we know very well how things work, because these lawyers, even according to the way Smotrich sees it, would be chosen by the state. It is not clear what would happen if they had to represent a Palestinian against the Israeli security forces.”

To what extent is your bill meant to apply to Arabs, and especially, to Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel, who are the first ones to suffer from administrative detention?

Smotrich: “Freedom is in the first tier of rights – it is a human right, not a civil right. I see how they are dealing with Jews. If they are capable of saying about children drawing graffiti that they are a terror cell, why should I trust them when it comes to Arabs?”

After the murder of the Dawabsheh family in Duma [during a 2015 arson attack allegedly perpetrated by Jews], you yourself explained how Jews cannot be terrorists. It’s you who are making this distinction. And that is discouraging.

“What does that have to do with this? I differentiate between the way the state conducts itself against an enemy that wants to destroy it, and how it deals with negative social phenomena such as crimes that you classify as ‘Jewish terror.’ The state has two tool boxes: one, with which a democratic state deals with crime, and which includes a mechanism intended to ensure fair procedure – for example, the rights to remain silent in an interrogation, consult with an attorney, have access to the body of evidence prior to being indicted, and so on. The second is a tool box with which the state wages war against those wishing to destroy it, and that includes tools that are seemingly non-democratic.”

According to Smotrich, "administrative detention should not be used against Jews at all, except in very exceptional instances," so, in effect, the proposed law would pertains essentially only to Arabs.

Smotrich: “To my regret, I am still not the prime minister or the defense minister, so it would serve all sides. And this is the criticism that I receive from my counterparts on the right. It comes precisely from this place. They say to me, what kind of idiot are you? Why are you writing a law for [the benefit of] Arabs? How many Jews are in administrative detention? Three and a half? Why doesn’t Ayelet [Shaked] like this law? She almost killed me the first time I presented it. But I will convince her that this is good for the State of Israel, good for democracy, good for combating international criticism.”

Home and money

Bezalel Smotrich is one of the Knesset’s more indigent members. His declaration of assets from 2015 states that he is worth 811,000 shekels ($211,000), after one subtracts a mortgage of 150,000 shekels, and that his property includes his 97-square-meter home, in Kedumim, a 2002 Citroen, and a savings account worth 130,000 shekels.

“There are MKs here who are upset that they made a lot of money outside and now have gone to a salary they can’t live on,” he notes. “I came from a not-for-profit association, so for me it’s a tremendous improvement. At long last we can afford cheese at home. My standard of living rose, but even before this I didn’t feel poor. We don’t go to hotels and things like that. We invest money in diapers and Materna [baby formula] and in after-school activities for the children.”

Do you ever travel abroad?

“No way.”

Where do you vacation?

“In Israel. We spent a night on Lake Kinneret with the children in a tent, cooking outdoors and all that. They had a super time. We also did two nights with my parents, the whole family, also in tents, at a horse ranch. My wife and I spent a weekend in Safed at a B&B – Thursday, Friday, Shabbat – that was our only vacation this year. It cost me 1,000 shekels [$260] for two nights.”

When is the last time you were abroad?

“I’ve been abroad once in my life, when I went to Manhattan for a week to raise money to buy things for [the settlement outpost] Migron. I met with donors from morning to night, I worked like crazy.”

And in the end Migron was demolished. At least one good thing came of it – you went abroad.

“It was very difficult for me.”


“I didn’t want to leave Israel.”

It was just for a visit, not to live there.

“I would never go for a visit, only to work.”

You wouldn’t go abroad to see a different place?

“No. I don’t lack for anything. I mean, have I finished with everything here?”

You said once ironically, in the wake of a report on poverty in the country, that you have five children and not one of them is poor. Maybe the sixth was born poor?

“It’s nothing if you compare us to my parents. Eight children on a salary of two teachers? Clearly below the poverty line. But we children didn’t feel anything of that, we had a good, happy life.”

Doesn’t your wife want to kill you for being out all day and not taking care of the children?

“No way. She sent me out. If I spent my time making money in a law firm, my wife wouldn’t be able to take being alone with the children. But she understands that I do what I do for values, for ideals. It was a joint decision, we went to a counselor.”

To a rabbi?

“No. I’m a person of professionals. [We wanted to know] how to preserve a relationship amid very intensive working conditions. We got important tips. That was her condition.”

Did it help?

“From time to time we go to ‘refuel’ and get advice. You enter into a certain situation with eyes open, you want to preserve the relationship and the parenthood. There are professionals who have learned about that and who have experience.”

It’s very liberal on your part.

“I am a liberal person.”

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