Who are Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and why are they so controversial?

We take a look at the far-right duo who could soon shape Israeli politics


(L to R) Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israeli far-right lawmaker and leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish power) party, and Bezalel Smotrich, Israeli far-right lawmaker and leader of the Religious Zionist Party, attend a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP) (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images)

With the pact between Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party set to grab between 14 and 15 Knesset seats, the controversial lawmakers could soon make their mark on Israel's sixth administration in less than four years.

The two men, who have pledged to be part of a potential Netanyahu-lead ruling coalition, have long attracted criticism for their views

Itamar Ben-Gvir

The lawyer and leader of the Kahanist "Otzma Yehudit" party was raised in a secular household by Iraqi Jewish parents. However, he became more politically and religiously conservative throughout the First Intifada at the turn of the millenium, eventually being exempted from IDF conscription due to his far-right links.

Kahanist ideology argues that non-Jews should not have voting rights in Israel, and has described Israeli-Arabs as enemies of both Jews and the Israeli state. 

The Kach party-which Mr Ben Gvir was youth coordinator of- was outlawed in 1994 when a supporter Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded a further 150 in a shooting in Hebron.

In February 2019, Mr Ben Gvir advocated the expulsion of Arab-Israelis who “are not loyal” to the state and his party supports the deportation of "Arab extremists" regardless of citizenship, including Party Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, and the Neturei Karta Jewish antizionist sect.

He was involved in a physical altercation with Mr Odeh in 2021 while the latter was visiting Hamas member Miqdad Qawasmeh who was on hunger strike in a Rehovot hospital.

The far-right firebrand has however said he was wrong to support the deportation of all Arabs from Israel during his youth.

The party supports total annexation of the West Bank, opposes Palestinian statehood ad urges the end of the Oslo accords. 

It too, backs legal immunity for IDF soldiers and wishes to ease restrictions on its rules of engagement.

In December 2021 he was investigated after being recorded brandishing a handgun at Arab security guards in a row over parking.

He has extensively worked on behalf of far-right Jewish defendants in court including two teenagers, charged over an arson attack on a Palestinian family home in 2015.

Bezalel Smotrich

The Religious Zionist Party leader has also never shied away from controversy.

The son of an Orthodox Rabbi, he grew up in a Golan Heights settlement and was certified as a lawyer despite failing to finish his degree.

The father of seven was arrested and jailed after protesting the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 but was released after three weeks, without charge.

In 2006 he co-founded the Israeli NGO Regavim which takes legal action against Arab constructions without legal permits in the West Bank and the rest of Israel.

That same year he helped organise a protest against a Jerusalem gay pride march, and referred to himself as a “proud homophobe”.

In 2016, Naftali Bennett criticised Mr Smotrich after he advocated for the separation of Arab and Jewish women in maternity facilities via Twitter.

He has repeatedly voiced support for the Israeli state to be more religious and run according to the Torah and Jewish law.

In 2015 he received backlash after telling a Knesset meeting that Israeli developers should not have to sell property to Arabs.

In 2021, he was criticised for saying that 'Ben Gurion should have finished the job' by removing all Israeli Arabs from Israel during the founding of the state.

A rocky reception

In February 2022 the Board of Deputies of British Jews said they "reject his abominable views and the hateful ideology of Bezalel Smotrich and call on all members of the British Jewish community to show him the door," and “Get back on the plane Bezalel and be remembered as a disgrace forever."

The UK's Liberal Judaism movement accused the Religious Zionism Party of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir of running: "a campaign that proudly party of racist, misogynist and homophobic views," views which they said, "run counter to the most basic Jewish values, for we learn in Genesis 1:27 that “all human beings are created in the divine image”.

The European European Union of Jewish Students slammed the possibility of Mr Smotrich and Mr Ben-Gvir leading the third largest party in the #Knesset as "of grave concern".

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