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Israel’s Religious Zionism Party, Including Far-right Elements, Exceeds Electoral Expectations
Bezalel Smotrich (CL), head of the Religious Zionism party, walks alongside Otzma Yehudit faction head Itamar Ben-Gvir (CR) as they greet supporters in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, March 19, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s Religious Zionism Party, Including Far-right Elements, Exceeds Electoral Expectations

Some new Knesset members sure to roil the Left

The Religious Zionism party did surprisingly well in Tuesday’s national election, garnering a projected six or seven seats according to the exit polls.

Incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will likely need the support of every Knesset member he can get if he is to assemble a 61-seat governing majority, including those of Religious Zionism.

The Religious Zionism electoral list consists of Knesset candidates from three parties running together in a “technical bloc” in an effort to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold for entrance to the legislature: the National Union-Tkuma faction (itself a merger of two parties), led by Bezalel Smotrich; Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), chaired by Itamar Ben-Gvir; and Noam, led by Avi Maoz. The latter two parties especially are considered extreme by many and are likely to soon split from Religious Zionism.

In addition, Netanyahu, to persuade Smotrich to run together with Otzma Yehudit and Noam and thus increase his chances of putting together a governing coalition, reserved a safe slot on the Likud candidates list for a member of Religious Zionism, guaranteeing it an additional seat in the Knesset.

Smotrich was arrested in 2005 during demonstrations against the disengagement plan to withdraw from the settlements in the Gaza Strip and was held in jail for three weeks but not charged. In 2006, he helped to organize the “Beast Parade” featuring barnyard animals as part of protests against the annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. He has called himself a “proud homophobe.”

Noam’s raison d’être is to oppose LGBTQ rights.

Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2007 of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism for displaying posters proclaiming: “Rabbi [Meir] Kahane was right: The Arab MKs are a fifth column” and “Expel the Arab enemy.”

David Rosenstark, a high-tech worker from the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh and a Religious Zionism voter, says it is incorrect to characterize Religious Zionism as extremist.

“I believe that the Knesset is a place where voices should be allowed to be heard fairly even when they are not part of the consensus. People shouldn’t be forced to silence themselves or be pushed out,” Rosenstark told The Media Line. “Unless they’ve done something that entails them going to jail, everyone, whether they’re Arab or Jew, should be allowed in the [legislature].

“I’m voting for them mostly because I believe that in Israel, each sector has very few possibilities to protect its interests unless it has sectorial representation,” he said. “For good or for bad, that’s just the way things seem to work in Israel, and therefore it’s important that we have a party that represents the sector I belong to.

“I also believe this party stands for certain principles that are important to me: to protect the rights of people whose rights have been violated in various ways, whether it’s settlers losing their homes or not being treated properly,” Rosenstark said.

Still, he does not agree with all of the positions of the three parties that ran together in Tuesday’s election.

“The main party I associate with in this bloc to get into the Knesset is the party that used to be called the National Union. I believe that it was a tactical mistake not to stay with [Naftali] Bennett [and his Yamina party], and that would have been preferable to me,” Rosenstark said.

“I regard Noam as a necessary evil, as part of the politics of groups getting together. I don’t really support Noam. … As a religious Jew, I feel that it’s a complicated topic that’s not being handled correctly by Noam, but I can deal with the fact that they’re in my party, just as in any party there are people who have various views that are different,” he added.

“Politics is all about compromise, and [Otzma Yehudit leader] Ben-Gvir has his good and bad sides. … He has done a lot of good things on the other topics that are important to me, like when the human rights of right-wing youth have been tremendously violated and he’s there for them” as a defense attorney, Rosenstark continued.

When asked about Smotrich’s actions at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, Rosenstark responded: “That was a long time ago and I can tell you [actor and comedian] Nadav Abuksis, who is homosexual himself [and who identifies as a right-winger], gets along well with Smotrich. … I think Smotrich regrets doing things in a crazy way, like referring to ‘the beasts.’ I don’t think he would say that today; people are entitled to grow up and mature.

“I’m not going to speak to what Smotrich did years ago, but what he said over the past few years while an MK is 100% representative of how I feel the situation with homosexuality has gone in Israel, where people are not entitled to other opinions or to state that they may not necessarily agree with everything,” he added.

“I think the violence, especially verbal violence, is more from the other side that doesn’t allow for other opinions,” Rosenstark said.

Dr. Gayil Talshir, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Political Science Department, disagrees, to say the least, about Religious Zionism.

“They are very extreme on three fronts: one is being homophobic, and they are very extreme religiously and nationalistically, so they want a Jewish religious state and not a democratic Israeli state with equality for the Arab citizens,” she told The Media Line.

Talshir added, however, that this does not mean that Israeli society is moving in this ideological direction.

“The vast majority of the Israeli population cannot stand these three extreme agendas and it’s just this unique situation that brought us to this moment,” she said.

Talshir said Netanyahu was driven to negotiate with parties out of the mainstream because the moderate and centrist parties will not join a coalition with him due to his legal woes, as the prime minister faces charges of bribery and corruption.

This has caused Netanyahu to act differently than he did in September 2019, when he first made an agreement with an extremist party, Talshir said.

“This is a pattern Netanyahu has invented and already used to get the more extreme right-wingers” into the Knesset, she said. “The Jewish Power party campaigned on its own, so around 20,000 votes were lost because they did not accept the offer that Netanyahu extended to them, which he wants to avoid this time.”

She noted that Netanyahu placed a candidate from Religious Zionism’s Jewish Home Party predecessor high on the Likud candidates list two election cycles ago, giving him a ticket to the Knesset. He had made an offer to the party, which it turned down, to run as a technical bloc with Otzma Yehudit. Neither party received enough votes to pass the electoral threshold.

This year, Netanyahu actively campaigned for Religious Zionism, a first for him, drawing criticism from some right-wing politicians.

The prime minister also bolstered the Islamist Ra’am party, which broke from the Joint List, in an effort to increase his chances of assembling a majority. But according to the exit polls, Ra’am will not enter the next Knesset.

“Netanyahu legitimized the Islamist party and now, for the first time in almost a decade,” it ran independently, and this was also because of the prime minister, Talshir said.

“You have to look at Netanyahu’s electoral difficulties and not necessarily deduce from them that the Israeli public is becoming more extreme,” she added.

There are international precedents, for example in France and Germany, for extremist parties to become “tamer,” Talshir said.

“You have, on the one hand, the way democracy tries to protect itself from extremists, nationalists, fundamentalists, and on the other hand, if they abide by the rules, they tend to become more moderate in one sense,” she said.

While Talshir is optimistic about the incorporation of these radical parties into the political system down the road, she says their participation now tarnishes Israel’s form of government.

“I think it is a sad day for Israeli democracy that such an extremist party is competing and probably passing the threshold, and I hope that it won’t be a feature of Israeli politics in the future but rather something that occurred because of the unique position of our prime minister who is undergoing a criminal trial,” she said.

Rabbi Susan Silverman, a candidate for the left-wing Meretz party, also hopes that mainstream parties’ interaction with extremism will be limited.

“Netanyahu is willing to make an agreement with anyone to keep him in power and out of jail, and if he is willing to make an agreement with fascists, with religious oppressors, with people who are out to minimize the humanity of other people, then that says everything about him and we should beware,” she said.

“Is that who we want to be? What are we willing to risk in terms of our emotions regarding security, which are not necessarily related to the reality of security, [for security] to be better? What are we willing to risk in terms of our emotions to be better? Who are we as a country and what is our purpose here on earth?” she asked.

Many Israelis agree with Rosenstark, as surveys ahead of the election had Religious Zionism receiving the same number of Knesset seats as Meretz, which is difficult for the rabbi to take in.

“For some reason in Israel, like in a lot of countries, we have associated cruelty and the oppression of the other as something that makes us safe, when actually the opposite is true,” she said.

“And not only is the opposite true, but we are obligated to behave toward human beings, whether it is our LGBTQ communities, the Arabs among us, or the Jews we disagree with in terms of their religious and cultural practices, to treat people with kavod [respect] and create a society of righteousness and justice and peace, and sometimes those are the things that take the most courage,” Silverman said.

“We clearly have not made our case well enough. I think a lot of us on the Left think it is self-evident that we were strangers in a strange land for most of our history…, that we were the minorities who were marginalized and hurt and so we [as Israelis] are not going to do that and will live our prophetic values at a very high level,” she told The Media Line. “But it’s not self-evident and we need to be better about making the case.”

Still, Silverman rejects the notion that Religious Zionism represents the Jewish sector in Israel.

“It doesn’t take a lot of courage to make sure that we are not mixing milk and meat, it doesn’t take any courage to observe Shabbat. What takes courage is to do what God told us more than … anything else, which is to treat people with justice and compassion and make ourselves feel vulnerable in doing so,” she said.

Talshir, however, is wary of likening the two political parties.

“I don’t think you can compare Religious Zionism to Meretz, because the [three right-wing] parties would not have passed [the electoral threshold] if they ran separately,” she said, explaining that instead, Meretz’s projected placement was more of a reflection of the increased threshold to get into parliament, which was raised from 2% in 2014.

“It became much harder because you need to have four mandates [to enter the Knesset], which means around 120,000 votes to pass the threshold, so this is why you see Meretz is struggling,” Talshir said.

In the event, both Religious Zionism and Meretz did better than expected in the initial exit polls, with each projected to have six or seven seats in the Knesset.

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