As Israel’s crises pile up, a far-right minister is a common thread

Like protests and unrest passed through Israel this week many Israelis have made impassioned calls for moderation and dialogue to resolve one of the most serious domestic crises in the country’s history.

But one government leader seemed determined to raise the stakes even higher: Bezalel Smotrich, the settler activist who is finance minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Mr Smotrich is a leading supporter of the government’s plan to gain more control over the Supreme Court, the issue that has fueled weeks of mass protests.

“We must not stop the reform in any way,” said Mr. Smotrich in a video message to his supporters Monday before Mr. Netanyahu announced a postponement of the plan. Mr. Smotrich instructed his followers to counter the anti-government protests with demonstrations of their own, a call that sparked widespread fear of violent confrontation in the streets of Israel. “We will not allow them to steal our vote and our land,” he added.

Then Mr. Smotrich resumed his day job and prepared for a new national budget. That afternoon, he gave a detailed speech to lawmakers about fiscal responsibility and market uncertainty. “The greatest service we can do to Israeli citizens,” he said in parliament, “is fighting inflation.”

Mr Smotrich, 43, is a study of contrasts. He is one of the most extreme voices in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history — but is also a well-organized strategist with an eye for detail, according to politicians on both sides of the political divide who have worked with him.

He declined to be interviewed, but to try to give a different impression of himself, he let a reporter glimpse some of his routine at the Treasury Department. He passed the time discussing competition law in the credit industry, surrounded by senior officials.

It was a sight that contrasted with his public image as the man at the heart of Israel’s three current crises: political upheaval about the judicial review at home, increasing violence in the occupied West Bank, and a growing rift with foreign governments — especially the United States – and the Jewish diaspora in the United States and Great Britain.

“He’s a contradiction,” said Mossi Raz, a leftist former lawmaker who built an unlikely rapport with Mr Smotrich in parliament.

“He’s a person who wants to talk, who wants to understand,” Mr Raz said. “He’s curious about other people, what they think, why they think differently.” Despite that, Mr. Raz said, “He’s really extreme in his views, and I can’t accept that at all.”

When Mr. Netanyahu came to power in December at the head of a coalition of divisive ministers, Mr. Smotrich stood out for his incendiary statements, which emerged as a lightning rod for criticism in Israel and abroad.

For Israelis, the storm around him is not surprising. Mr. Smotrich has caused controversy for years because of his extreme views. He has supported segregation between Arabs and Jews in maternity wards, supported Jewish real estate developers who don’t want to sell to Arabs, who called for Israel to be ruled by Jewish law. In his twenties, he helped goats and donkeys parade through Jerusalem for an anti-gay protest.

He also seeks permanent Israeli control over the West Bank, where he lives and which Israel occupied in 1967 but never formally annexed. He opposes a Palestinian state and instead seeks to bolster the presence of the approximately 500,000 Israelis in the West Bank.

Now in office, Mr. Smotrich is one of the most outspoken advocates of government efforts to curb the power of the Supreme Court, which he has long opposed because of his restrictions on the most ambitious efforts of the settler movement to take more land in the West Bank. He has also fueled tensions in the West Bank, where deadly violence has reached one of the highest levels this century – most notably when he said in February that Huwara, a Palestinian city in the middle of the turmoilmust be “blotted out” by Israel.

This month, at an event in Paris, he stood in front of a map showing Jordan — a neighboring country that shares a fragile peace with Israel — as an Israeli province, declaring, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”

During a trip to Washington this month, US officials refused to meet him and liberal Jewish groups and Israeli expatriates demonstrated against him.

One of Mr Smotrich’s closest allies said his incendiary statements about the Palestinians simply represented his core ideals.

“This is what he believes in,” said Daniella Weiss, former mayor of Kedumim, the West Bank settlement where Mr. Smotrich lives. “The land of Israel is for Israel – and not for any other entity, body or organization. It is a Jewish state.”

Speaking the truth as he saw it, she said, was “more important than any diplomatic manipulation.”

Mr. Smotrich, the son of a right-wing rabbi, believes that every part of Israel and the occupied territories was promised to the Jews by God.

He described himself as a “proud homophobe” and, like many ultra-conservatives in Israel, does not shake hands with women for religious reasons. He opposed holding football games on the Jewish Sabbath and last year proposed running the economy according to the laws of the Jewish Bible.

“They tried a lot of economic theories, they tried capitalism, they tried socialism, but they didn’t try anything,” Mr Smotrich said. said Mispacha, a religious magazine. “If we implement the Torah, we will have economic abundance,” he added. Some supporters later downplayed the comment, saying he didn’t mean it literally.

As a young activist, Mr. Smotrich was detained for weeks in 2005 – though never charged – after being arrested during failed protests to prevent the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza.

In 2017, he published a plan outlining how Israel could gain permanent control of the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but never formally annexed. He proposed that Palestinians be denied the right to vote, at least initially, and that those who did not accept Israeli control be paid to emigrate, or killed if they resorted to violence.

Mr Smotrich was elected to parliament in 2015 and later became leader of a far-right party, Religious Zionism. As a legislator, his longstanding hostility to the Supreme Court was exacerbated when the judges struck down a law he supported that would have allowed settlers to build on privately owned Palestinian land.

He briefly served as transportation minister in a previous Netanyahu administration, with supporters and opponents alike recognizing his rigor and ability to push major road projects forward in both Israel and the West Bank.

Last year, it was Mr Smotrich’s party, not Mr Netanyahu’s, that was the first to lay out the detailed plans that grew into the government’s proposal to limit the power of the courts.

In addition to his role as finance minister, in February Mr Smotrich persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give him leverage over part of the defense ministry, giving him control over some civilian affairs in West Bank settlements.

“He’s brilliant, he’s very smart, he’s very decisive,” said Yisrael Medad, a veteran settler activist who has worked with Mr. Smotrich.

But sometimes, Mr. Medad added, he hurt himself with thoughtless remarks. “There’s a lack of coordination between his brain and his mouth,” he said.

And his remarks about Huwara, a Palestinian town in the northern West Bank where a Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israeli settlers on Feb. 26, sparking violent reprisals by Israeli settlers, may have marked a turning point.

Mr Smotrich responded to arson attacks by the settlers on Huwara by saying it was the responsibility of the state, not the civilian settlers, to destroy the town.

“Huwara needs to be cleared,” Mr Smotrich said at a business conference. “The State of Israel must do that — heaven forbid for private individuals.”

For some opponents of the judicial review, those remarks were an enlightening moment.

Dozens of reserve pilots then met with the air force commander to express their views reluctance to volunteer for optional service if the overhaul was completed. They cited Mr Smotrich’s comments about Huwara as an example of what they feared would become state policy – ​​and military practice – if the Supreme Court’s authority was undermined.

Mr Smotrich later expressed “sincere regret” for his comments, saying he had only considered demolishing some houses in Huwara.

But for some, the damage was already done. The number of reservists enlisting in March fell as concerns about the overhaul spread beyond the Air Force. At least part of that concern was directly linked to Mr Smotrich’s comments, said some reservists. The reservists’ reluctance was a key factor in Monday’s suspension of the review.

For Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister and a leader of the protests, “there is an early understanding that the two crises are linked.”

Some protesters “are beginning to understand that this is not just about the Supreme Court,” she added. “We are in the middle of a battle, not only for the future of Israel, but for the very nature of Israel.”

And during protests in Tel Aviv, protesters have pointed to the government’s failure to prevent violence by settlers in the West Bank.

“Where were you in Huwara?” crowds chanted police officers.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.