Bezazel Smotrich, the blue-eyed bearded settler who has become the country’s youthful face of unrepentant political and religious extremism and intolerance is ready for his close-up, after being elected leader of the National Union party, Israel’s furthest-right faction, on Monday night by the party’s central committee.
Now Smotrich, 38, is at a crossroads: his continued climb up the political ladder depends on whether he can make the transition from being one of Israel’s most uncompromisingly divisive figures, to one who is capable of uniting. This skill will be crucial if he is to succeed in his next goal: replacing Naftali Bennett as head of the national religious camp’s “big tent” party, Habayit Hayehudi.
Nothing in his political background, however, points to a willingness to tone down his hard-right rhetoric, which has been repeatedly slammed by critics as racist, homophobic, messianic and un-democratic, in service to that ambition.
Smotrich blazed onto the national political scene in 2015, making it into the Knesset eighth on the party’s slate. It was a stroke of luck, given that the party only won eight seats.
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Politically active from a young age, he was arrested by the Shin Bet in 2005, suspected of organizing violent protests against the Gaza disengagement and evacuation of the settlements of Gush Katif – but he was never charged. As a young activist, he declared himself a “proud homophobe” and organized the 2006 anti-gay “Beast Parade,” a march held in Jerusalem in protest of a gay pride parade in the city, which featured goats and donkeys in a send-up of celebrating so-called “deviant acts.”
The same year, he co-founded Regavim, an NGO aimed at promoting “Israeli sovereignty” in the West Bank and inside the Green Line monitoring legal action in the Israeli court system against any construction lacking Israeli permits undertaken by Palestinians or Bedouins, fighting what it calls “the silent conquest of Israel’s national lands.”
After entering the Knesset in 2015, Smotrich quickly made a name for himself as a media-savvy and effective voice on the far right, leading the battle to prevent the dismantling of the Amona outpost in the West Bank and advocating for the so-called “formalization bill” which would legalize the status of such outposts and the expansion of the settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land.
He grabbed headlines by declaring there is “no such thing as Jewish terrorism” after the 2016 firebombing in Duma, supporting segregation between Jewish and Arab women in hospital maternity wards, accusing “radical feminists” of infiltrating the Israeli military, and accusing the LGBT community of controlling the media. Forcefully advocating for a bill that would impose the death penalty, Smotrich said he would personally volunteer for the job of executioner.
In a wide-ranging interview with Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht in 2016, Smotrich laid out his clear and uncompromising vision, advocated “decisive action” to annex the West Bank, and that he makes no distinction between the Areas A, B, and C as laid out in the Oslo Accords. Israeli sovereignty should be applied “in all of Judea and Samaria” and would “abort (Palestinian) hopes of establishing a state.” Any Palestinian who opposes Israeli sovereignty through any form of violence, including children throwing stones, he said, will be shot, jailed or expelled.
The unrelenting hard-right extremism that has made him so prominent, however, could prove a challenge to his aspiration to lead the Habayit Hayehudi party. Under the leadership of Education Minister Bennett, the interests of the national religious and the settler movements were brought together under the same banner, uniting the camp’s three separate parties despite their diverse outlooks on religion and social issues.
It was this strategy, over the course of two elections, that turned the party into a political force to be reckoned with. Bennett harnessed his popularity and that of his political partner, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked into a stunning 12 Knesset seats in the 2013 election. The party won a less impressive eight seats in 2015 - but the number was high enough to lift Smotrich into the Knesset and then win him the position of Deputy Knesset speaker.
The party experienced a political earthquake on December 29, when Bennett and Shaked announced they were jumping ship to form the secular-religious Hayamin Hahedash party. In polling following that announcement, Habayit Hayehudi sunk alarmingly in the polls to a level so low, it runs a chance of failing to meet the electoral threshold.
Still reeling from that development, the National Union chose Smotrich to be its party leader ahead of the April 9 election ousting veteran head Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel. Ariel’s expected retirement from political life post-defeat will represent a generational changing of the guard in the settler movement.
So what will Smotrich’s next move be? He is expected to make an attempt to reach out to small parties on the extreme edge of religious right, such as the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, led by controversial figures like Michael Ben Ari, Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein. Another potential partner for Smotrich is former minister Eli Yishai, head of the Shas breakaway party Yachad, which did not get enough votes to enter the Knesset in 2015.
It is debatable, however, whether gaining strength from allies with views as extreme as his own will move him any closer to being crowned the next head of Habayit Hayehudi. He faces at least one major rival within the party – Eli Ben Dahan, the MK and deputy minister – who finished third on the party’s list after Bennett and Shaked announced, and is currently the party’s de facto caretaker, that he plans to vie for party leadership.
When it comes to name recognition and fan base, however, Ben Dahan is no match for Smotrich. Rumors abound that the Bennett-Shaked divorce took place with Smotrich’s blessing with the understanding that he would inherit Habayit Hayehudi, and, after the elections, the two parties will join forces when the time comes for coalition negotiations.