Analysis |

Far-right Leader Tastes the Rage of the pro-Bibi Base

Bezalel Smotrich, who is the most refined spokesperson of the far-right's fear concerning Netanyahu, could spell future trouble for the incoming Israeli government

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset.
Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

After weeks of attacks, as if he were, heaven forbid, a left-winger, and after labeling him a “messianic megalomaniac” at best, and at worst “a little piece of shit who can’t pass the [Knesset] threshold,” the pro-Netanyahu base has made a sharp U-turn. Bezalel Smotrich, who had climbed too high up his tree during the coalition talks by demanding the defense portfolio, is now back in favor and considered a "brother."

What can we learn about the Bibi-ists from this episode? If Netanyahu wanted to make peace with the Palestinians, the Taliban, Iran or even Genghis Khan, his camp would obediently follow him with drums and dancing and explain to us how the occupation destroyed Israel’s soul and how important co-existence is with the Arabs in the Middle East. And the opposite is true.

This rule of one operates first and foremost inside the Likud party, whose senior officials live in a perpetual state of anxiety. David Bitan – who in a 2017 interview, at a time when he served as the all-powerful coalition chairman, said that “nothing will come between me and Netanyahu” – is the only one today in Likud who is publicly speaking out against the abuse that’s routinely heaped on party members. Bitan is up to his neck in criminal charges and represents an exceptional case of someone whose world has collapsed. Today, he has nothing to lose and therefore allows himself to speak freely.

David Amsalem may soon join Bitan in the ranks of the disgruntled. Amsalem made a name for himself due to his verbal abuse of the law enforcement authorities out of loyalty to his boss. Will he make good on his threat not to take part in the government?

If Amir Ohana doesn’t get the Foreign Ministry he will have to settle for Knesset speaker. He may then look longingly as Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, passes by him on the way to his desired ministry. Like other senior Likud officials, Ohana shed blood for Netanyahu, especially when they were in the political desert.

Thus, he may see Dermer’s appointment as a singular act of ingratitude on Netanyahu’s part, not to mention a puzzling step considering that Dermer is radioactive in the eyes of the Democrats. This isn’t a way to get off to a good start, certainly after the U.S. midterm election failed to produce the widely expected red wave and showed that the Democrats remain a force to contend with.

Smotrich, who will apparently head the Finance Ministry, which he likely aimed for before becoming entangled in the defense portfolio, leaves this crisis fairly badly bruised. For the first time, he has tasted the bitterness of the angry pro-Bibi base, which now calls him an ideological partner and a winner.

Anyone who knows even a little about the Netanyahu-Smotrich axis is fully aware that even if understandings are about to be reached, the war is far from over. Since he first appeared on the public stage, Smotrich has been the most courageous and most refined spokesman of the far-right’s doubts about Netanyahu, who they see, in the best case, as a conservative who lacks courage and, in the worst case, as a servant of the left-wing elites.

When a government is finally formed, Smotrich will try to embarrass Netanyahu from his right flank, and Netanyahu who has given him a small taste of the “special treatment” he reserves for his enemies, will set his acolytes on him again. If this indeed does happen, Smotrich will come out fighting.

Israeli politics has already shown us how it can go far beyond anything that we ever could have imagined. So, here is a scenario that may sound crazy today but may well happen in about two years’ time, or maybe less: Benny Gantz is in (yes, even in a government where Ben-Gvir is public security minister), and Bezalel Smotrich is out.

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