(January 4, 2023 / JNS) Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the outgoing chief of the Israel Defense Forces general staff, probably never thought he would need to call the incoming prime minister over a political matter in his last month of service. But in December, Kochavi’s concerns over Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich’s proposal to create a new position in the Defense Ministry went public. The new position would oversee civilian matters in areas of the West Bank that are fully controlled by Israel. According to the press, Kochavi had urged Netanyahu to stop Smotrich’s interference in military affairs. A few days later, Smotrich hit back—he demanded that generals wait 10 years after the end of their military service before entering politics, and accused Kochavi of politicization.
I still remember the outrage of many—on the right as well as the left—when Smotrich first became a member of Knesset in March 2015. He had helped organize the notorious anti-LGBTQ “Beast Parade,” had been detained by the Shin Bet in 2005 on his way to protest Gaza disengagement and proudly identified with the “Hilltop Youth” (young settler activists who set up illegal outposts)—a blatant provocation and a challenge to the system. But in just a few years, Smotrich would become the system.
Back in 2015, when Smotrich took his first steps as a lawmaker (quite successfully, one has to say), his future partner—Itamar Ben-Gvir—was a lawyer busy representing Jews charged with assaulting Arabs. One of his clients was Amiram Ben-Uliel, who was later given three life sentences plus 20 years for the murder of three members of the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old, who were burned to death in their home in the Palestinian village of Duma in 2015.
In the November 2022 elections, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich joined forces and ran together with another far-right party, gaining an impressive 14 seats in the Knesset. Over 600,000 Israelis gave their votes to Ben-Gvir and Smotrich this time, with two out of 10 soldiers supporting the Religious Zionism Party. Smotrich is now the finance minister and Ben-Gvir the minister of national security, overseeing the Border Police. What does this say about their place in Israeli society?
The new patriots
In the recent past, it would have been difficult to imagine an extreme right-wing politician—who only served 14 months in the military and had been detained by the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet)—publicly defying a celebrated general. However, Israel is changing. According to the military’s own public opinion surveys, motivation to serve in the military is declining among secular Israelis, while the percentage of those who will never serve—ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens of Israel—is rapidly growing. By 2050, these two groups will comprise nearly half the Israeli population.
In the past, army leaders—the heads of elite military units, the generals, the chiefs of staff—were everyone’s heroes. Their path from the military to politics was secured (unless they wanted to head some defense-related company). Now, with the waning of existential threats (other than Iran), successful economic development and normalization of relations with Arab countries, Israel is becoming less enchanted with its men and women in uniform.
Soon it wasn’t only Arabs throwing stones and trash at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. The “Hilltop Youth” in the most extreme settlements were doing it too. In ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, spitting at a soldier in uniform or assaulting him became the norm. This is the environment in which Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich evolved. A military commander who warned against settler extremism became an enemy. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich became the new patriots, claiming to be more concerned with the safety of the Jews in Israel and the settlements than the heads of the military.
Both Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir are lawyers by training. Smotrich came to the Knesset to work, not to engage in mere performance. While Ayelet Shaked, once his party’s co-leader, was busy garnering headlines, Smotrich was focused on getting more funding for the West Bank settlements and paving roads between them. He was knowledgeable, persuasive and hard working, and knew how to use the law to promote his goals. There is no doubt that as finance minister, Smotrich will use his new powers to maximize the gains for his constituents.
There is no such thing as bad publicity
While Bezalel Smotrich brought a proven track record of legislative and administrative work, it was Ben-Gvir who stole the show. Although he was only in the third position on the joint Religious Zionism Party list, there is no doubt that many Israelis are enchanted with him. An eternal agent provocateur who had publicly wished for Ariel Sharon to “join Lily” (his deceased wife) after Sharon led the Gaza disengagement in 2005, Ben-Gvir is now perceived not as a dangerous pyromaniac but as a truth teller who will restore law and order. During the months that preceded the elections, Ben-Gvir became the main star of the Israeli media. Everybody wanted to talk to him and host him; his media presence exploded.
“There is no such thing as bad publicity,” said Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner. Ben-Gvir would likely agree. He’s not afraid of hard questions, of not knowing the answer, of journalists who cite his past sins. It all serves the cause of normalizing Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and the rest of the gang. Today it seems that this mission is complete.
Beyond the impasse
After unsuccessful attempts to separate from the Palestinians—first in Oslo in the 1990s and then in Gaza in 2005—the pool of ideas in Israel went dry, both on the right and the left. Although Netanyahu continues to preach “conflict management” and the idea of a two-state solution, today that seems just as feasible as ending world hunger, leaving most Israelis in limbo. What shall we do? How should Israel get out of this mess? How do we stop terror attacks? What is the solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, and what is the meaning of “the Jewish state”?
In this state of impasse, with tensions between Jews and Arabs rising, this powerful duo bluntly put their ideology on the table. Restore law and order, no to a division of the historic land of Israel, no to any form of power sharing with the Arabs in Israel. Today their voters are eager to see how the new government and new ministers will implement this ideology. The voters of the other camp are mortified by every statement made by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, fearing that the Israel that they knew will change forever.
Israel has already changed. The unbelievable success of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in the November elections clearly manifests this change. And, of course, Israel being a dynamic young country, with a strong center-left following, a future change in the other direction is not just possible but probable.
Ksenia Svetlova is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) and a director of the program on Israel–Middle East relations at Mitvim Institute. She is a former Knesset member. @KseniaSvetlova
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.
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