Waiting for Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in Jerusalem

Election campaign ad for Bezalel Smotrich in West-Jerusalem (Phillip Weiss - Mondoweiss)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  November 1, 2022

On the eve of Israeli elections, the juggernaut of Religious Zionism is everywhere in West Jerusalem. New kingmakers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ban-Gvir reflect the country’s militant reality.

On the streets of West Jerusalem, the anticipation of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ban-Gvir is almost too much to bear. They are the far rightwing leaders of the Religious Zionism party that is predicted to become the third largest party in Israeli parliament tonight after the election.

Smotrich’s eyes look at you everywhere as you walk down Jaffa Street. There are endless posters with the message, “You can put your trust in him.” This is his Jerusalem. I haven’t seen any posters picturing Yair Lapid, the center-rightist who is now prime minister — except for a racist billboard demonizing him for links to Palestinians on the highway. There don’t seem to be any votes for him in Jerusalem.

Religious Zionism has been soaring in the polls, and the narrative this election is that if Smotrich and Ben-Gvir get 13 or 14 or seats, they will help bring Benjamin Netanyahu back to the prime ministership after a year-and-a-half out of the job, and become ministers in his cabinet.

“Everyone here is for Netanyahu,” a Palestinian worker at Mahane Yehuda market tells me. Not far away a man in his 40s with a gun on his hip and a loudspeaker chants, “Vote Netanyahu,” alongside a young woman holding up a poster saying “Benny Gantz, go away, and let Netanyahu come back” (as translated to me).

The fear of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir is profound on the center and left of Jewish politics. They have an “unapologetically racist and fascistic agenda,” Haggai Matar says at +972. I went to a Labor rally in Zion Square to commemorate the murder of Yitzhak Rabin 27 years ago, and the turnout was sadly small. 1,000, they said, in the press. I thought hundreds. A handmade poster in English said, “Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben-Gvir are a threat to world peace,” and a woman took me aside to ask if it was true that many U.S. senators were against Smotrich and Ben-Gvir becoming part of the next government.

It’s true, I said, that Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Brad Sherman are upset by the prospect. Reports are that a UAE official has communicated the same concern to Netanyahu. You must not do this, it will undermine the “Abraham Accords,” the foreign minister is reported to have warned Netanyahu.

I imagine that Biden officials have quietly delivered the same signal, though the State Department says it is bugging out of interfering.

“Smotrich has been attacking the Biden administration for their public opposition to a far-right government” as “foreign interference,” J Street says in its latest election update.

If Netanyahu’s Likud wins the most votes tonight, there is bound to be a lot of pressure on Defense Minister Benny Gantz to bring his seats over, and keep Smotrich and Ben-Gvir out. The press is filled with speculation about Netanyahu’s calculations. The opposition leader helped forge the deal that has made Religious Zionism a juggernaut in West Jerusalem —  though it is also reported Netanyahu has never appeared with Ben-Gvir.

It is hard to argue that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir — who have made many racist threats against Palestinians — would change Israeli policy toward Palestinians. That policy is deeply anti-Palestinian already. But it is also hard to argue that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir would not help to transform Israel’s image. They would lock in the image of the New Israel that young progressives in the U.S. have, and that we have at this site. The hard, militant, unregenerate Israel that goes further and further right—the two would help that process of delegitimization. Once Bennett and Lieberman were the scary faces. Now they seem like statesmen. Next to Ben-Gvir who cheered on Rabin’s assassination as a young man and was prevented from entering the army due to his extremist views.  

If Ben-Gvir becomes a minister we would see more coverage of the out-of-control young Zionists in their sweatshirts and boots and tzitzit and dreadlocks who terrorize Palestinians, and dance to rock music outside the Central Bus Station here.

So it’s no wonder that a group of European Jewish students has warned Netanyahu against including Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

The rise of the far right will further “embolden and empower” anti-Zionists on campuses, they warn!

It is for the same reason that a Palestinian friend of a friend smiled as we shared coffee at a café in Ramallah and said he had urged his friends in ’48 to either boycott the election — a sign of no faith in the Palestinian parties in Israel — or “vote for Ben-Gvir!”

While another Palestinian friend in Israel — who plans to boycott — explains to me her indifference. “Everyone says to me, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir! And Ben-Gvir is very bad, yes. But he is very bad for Israeli Jews, not me. He is a terrible reflection on them. Not on Palestinians.”

And here it must be stated that just two years ago another meteoric party got 15 seats in an Israeli election, right behind the two big parties. That was the Joint List of Palestinian parties. But the big Jewish blocs refused to break bread with Palestinian parties. Because this is a Jewish state. And Palestinians must be locked out of real power.

If the Palestinians were actually included in the political matchmaking, this famous Israeli political instability might actually end. There would be real politics. In addition to two matched blocs of Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu center-right Jews there would be a third bloc — with independence and agency.

But to imagine Palestinian agency in Israeli politics you must also imagine that “Jewish democracy” is finally openly exposed as a farce in the United States discourse.

No, Palestinians don’t ever get to be kingmakers. Smotrich and Ben Gvir may well be just that. The dreadlocked young Zionists could be dancing in these squares tonight.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006