Meet the new kingmakers of Israeli politics

Jonathan Ofir 

Mondoweiss  /  November 11, 2022

The racist, homophobic, ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism list was the big winner in Israel’s most recent election. It is also a perfect reflection of where Israel is heading.

Israel has just had its elections and the final winners belong to an unprecedentedly hawkish, nationalist, and religious fundamentalist political bloc, led by Likud (32 seats), Religious Zionism, (14 seats), Shas (11 seats), and United Torah Judaism (7 seats). While Likud, Shas and United Torah Judaism are quite well-known traditional parties, support for Religious Zionism has ballooned in the recent months, and its leaders remain relatively unknown. 

Because Religious Zionism won 14 seats in the Israeli election here is a rundown of the top 14 members of the list that will be almost definitely be part of the next Israeli government.

  1. Bezalel Smotrich

Smotrich is known for his homophobic, ultra-nationalist and religiously bigoted statements. In 2006, Smotrich helped organize a “beast parade”, which mocked the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and featured goats and donkeys. In 2015, then as a member of The Jewish Home party (a party which in its current constitution under Ayelet Shaked didn’t make the electoral threshold), he said that he was “a proud homophobe”.

When it comes to Israel’s Palestinian citizens, Smotrich goes farther than even Netanyahu who warned in 2015 that “the Arabs [Palestinians] are coming to vote in droves” at the eve of the election.  

In 2016, Smotrich made headlines following reports that there exists a de facto policy of racial segregation in Israeli maternity wards, where he tweeted: “It’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie down [in a bed] next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby twenty years from now.” His wife, Revital, supported his view. She told Israel Channel 10 she had “kicked an Arab [Palestinian] obstetrician out of the [delivery] room. I want Jewish hands to touch my baby, and I wasn’t comfortable lying in the same room with an Arab [Palestinian] woman.” She continued,  “I refuse to have an Arab [Palestinian] midwife, because for me giving birth is a Jewish and pure moment.” 

And in 2017, Smotrich publicized his “Decision Plan” in 2017, which entails that Palestinians either explicitly accept to live as Apartheid second class subjects in “the Jewish State” (officially relinquishing their “national aspirations”) , or be expelled from the country. 

Bezalel Smotrich is vying to become either the Defense or Finance minister in the next Israeli government. 

  1. Itamar Ben-Gvir

Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power Party is a convicted Jewish terrorist who is a disciple of the convicted Jewish terrorist rabbi Meir Kahane, and an admirer of the perpetrator of the Al-Khalil (Hebron) massacre in 1994, Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 worshipers at Al-Ibrahimi Mosque. 

Netanyahu may have been the face of Israeli hawkishness and intransigence for the many years of his premiership, but he pales in comparison to Smotrich, and Smotrich appears to pale in comparison to Ben-Gvir. 

Like Smotrich, Ben-Gvir also has a plan for expelling “disloyal” Palestinian citizens. He’s managed to become popular both by going to kibbutzes (which was arguably to mock the Labor Party), as well as by brandishing guns and encouraging others to shoot Palestinian stone throwers in the occupied east-Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Yet, while Ben-Gvir is often described as an extremist  it’s important to note here that Ben Gvir is quintessentially Zionist.

Ben-Gvir has toned down his rhetoric somewhat as he has become an official politician. The traditional chants of the youths in his base have changed from “death to the Arabs” to “death to the terrorists”. This appears to be an actual objective he is set to pursue, and if he gets the coveted Minister of Internal Security post he is hoping for he may get ample opportunity to institute this threat. 

  1. Ofir Sofer

Ofir Sofer has already been on the Religious Zionism ticket under its former name Tkumah (‘Revival’) and was its secretary general since 2014. He wandered, through the Yamina (‘Rightwards’) party into Likud and ran under its ticket last year, then moved back to Religious Zionism this summer. He is a former army Major. 

Similar to his list mates, he believes that Palestinian citizens of Israel are seeking to “undermine the foundations of the Jewish State from within.”

  1. Orit Strook

Orit Strook is the highest ranking woman in the Relgious Zionist list. She founded the “Judea and Samaria human rights organization” in 2002 which works to apply biblical names to occupied Palestinian territory, and protect the “human rights” of the invading colonists against the invaded Palestinians. 

  1. Yitzhak Wasserlauf

Yitzhak Wasserlauf is the chairman of the Jewish Power faction. Only 30 years old, he’s expected to be the youngest Knesset member. He calls for the deportation of African asylum seekers, in addition to the “disloyal” Palestinians, of course.

  1. Simha Rothman

Simha Rothman is part of the Temple Movement seeking the destruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque and calls for Jewish prayers at the compound against the status quo agreement which he says is “racist”. 

  1. Almog Cohen

Almog Cohen is the founder of a Jewish supremacist vigilante team patrolling southern Israel to “fight crime among Bedouins”. Cohen recently boasted that he assaulted Bedouins in 2013 when he was part of a police SWAT team. In the event in question, the perpetrators violently beat a father and two sons who were peacefully protesting, urinated on them and threatened them with a bullet to the head. Because the identity of the assaulting police officers could not be confirmed, the case was closed and no one was held accountable.

  1. Michal Waldiger

Michal Waldiger is the seemingly more ‘humane’ face of Religious Zionism. She is a lawyer focusing on mental health, drug abuse and women’s national service – and is also of course an advocate for ultra-nationalist Jewish supremacy. 

  1. Amichai Eliyahu

Amichai Eliyahu’s main focus is on anti-miscegenation and Israel’s centrality in maintaining the Jewish biology. Eliyahu recently attacked Labor Party leader, and Transportation Minister, Merav Michaeli, who had a child through surrogacy, as “someone who bought a child on Amazon” who “will not educate us about tolerance.” He also criticized here for “[imposing] her values on us” when Michaeli held an event inaugurating a new bus line that runs on Saturday, which he vehemently opposes.

  1. Zvika Fogel

Zvika Fogel is a retired Brig. General, former head of the army’s Southern Command, is the high-profile military representative in Religious Zionism, which otherwise doesn’t have the big military profile as is traditional for many Zionist parties (Ben-Gvir himself for example, was deemed unfit for service due to his extreme political background). Fogel advocates for the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which is actually something both Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz have advocated for in the past yet dropped – regardless of the fact that this annexation has already occurred de facto

  1. Avi Maoz

Avi Maoz is the head of Noam, an explicitly anti LGBTQ party ideologically sponsored by rabbi Zvi Thau of the settler yeshiva of Har Hamor, that is part of the Religious Zionism list. Noam believes that Smotrich and his ilk do not go far enough to protect traditional, Jewish-orthodox, conservative family values. Its election video from July was taken down by YouTube for violation of terms of usage, but can be seen here.  It features a family (mother, father, child) coming to vote, bombarded by liberal messages. They say they vote so that “my child can be Jewish” and that “he will marry a woman”. 

  1. Ohad Tal

Ohad Tal represents a relatively benign face of Religious Zionism, and was until recently head of the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement. He works on relations with diaspora Judaism and appears to be open to compromises on internal Jewish quarrels regarding the Orthodox monopoly on prayer sites like the Western Wall. This relatively softer face was perhaps not expected to actually appear in parliament, since very few expected the Religious Zionist list to win over 10 or 11 seats. 

  1. Limor Son Har Hamelech

Limor Son Har Hamelech is a longtime settler and one of those evacuated from the Homesh settlement in 2005. This was part of the Gaza “disengagement” deal where four Israeli colonies in the West Bank were also evacuated. Son Har Hamelech advocates for the Israeli colonialists to return to all the areas they left in 2005.

  1. Yitzhak Kroiser

Yitzhak Kroiser belongs to the Jewish Power faction and hardly has a political footprint. He is the son of rabbi Yehuda Kroiser who is the chief rabbi of the Jewish colony Mitzpeh Jericho. Yehuda Kroiser heads a Jerusalem yeshiva called “The Jewish Idea”, which is a Kahanist institution. 

Not outside mainstream Zionist politics

It is finally worth noting, that many of the ideas espoused by those on the Religious Zionism list are not unique and have actually existed in the mainstream of Zionist politics. We have already seen this non-apologetic vein in Likud, like when Tzipi Hotovely, then Deputy Foreign Minister said in 2015 at her inaugural speech: 

“This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologize for that”. 

Hotovely is also a religious Zionist. That kind of fundamentalist religious Zionism has become more and more dominant in Israeli politics, as well as within military leadership. Whether it is called Religious Zionism as a party or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s a force in Israeli society. 

In addition, Jewish Power’s overt advocacy for expelling Palestinian citizens is not just shared by a crazed minority. In the past, Israel Beitenu leader, and leading anti-Netanyahu voice, Avigdor Lieberman advocated not just expelling them, but actually decapitating them with an ax. According to a 2016 PEW survey, Israelis were rather equally divided on whether Palestinians should be expelled, but a clear majority among those who define themselves as religious supported it.

So, while many are appalled by the overt racism and bigotry of Religious Zionism and Jewish Power it is clear that they are not an aberration or a fringe. They are representing quite mainstream Israeli views, and these views are becoming more prominent and more influential. Moreso, they appear to be the future of Israel, since Jewish Power is about three times more popular with the young than with older voters. This is really where Israel is headed.

[Hotovely is the current Ambassador of Israel to the United Kingdom]


Jonathan Ofir – Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark