Smotrich and Ben Gvir: Post-’67 Roots of Extremism (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- February 20, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Nothing surprising in your headline. Today’s messianic racism has its roots in Israel’s 1967 conquest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

A. Granted. But I’m referring to more specific catalysts that have come to mind recently and that explain the behavior of these two extremist ministers. In the case of Minister of Finance (and Minister in the Defense Ministry) Bezalel Smotrich, the 1993-94 Oslo Accords and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. With reference to Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in late June 1967.

Q. Start with Smotrich. He opposed Oslo, and as a young man violently opposed the Gaza withdrawal. So?

A. Last week, Minister of Finance Smotrich hosted a delegation of heads of Israel’s banks. After presenting the next national budget (make no mistake, unlike Ben Gvir who at the ministerial level is an ignoramus shooting from the hip, Smotrich is a smart and efficient minister), the conversation turned to the Netanyahu government’s so-called ‘judicial revolution’. The bank heads solemnly warned, with statistical and empirical backup, that passage of the government’s planned reforms to the judicial system would have disastrous economic consequences for Israel: lower credit ratings, reduced foreign investment, capital flight, damage to international trust in Israeli democracy, etc.

Smotrich rebuffed the warnings, albeit without any basis in facts-on-the-ground, then asked, apropos mass popular demonstrations against the anticipated judicial ‘reform’ measures, “Where were you at the [Gaza] redeployment? We didn’t hear from you. I don’t recall that when I demonstrated, you also came out to demonstrate against [the withdrawal]. Oslo too, I don’t recall that it interested you at all. You were busy with banking and not political policy.”

Q. That sounds like a bad historical mixup, not the thinking of a smart and efficient minister . . .

A. Indeed, when it comes to any initiative, like the judicial revolution, that Smotrich appears to believe will advance his goal of taking over the entire Land of Israel (by packing the High Court with rightist judges and restricting their freedom to issue judicial restrictions on the government), Smotrich is messianic, not efficient.

To begin with, there is no logical or direct correlation between, on the one hand, initiatives from the left (Labor’s Oslo Accords) and the right (Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal) that were designed to advance a two-state solution, and on the other, the notion of opposing judicial changes that radically restrict the balance of powers among the branches of government in Israel. Plenty of Israelis who opposed Oslo (which in 1993 was approved by a bare and contested Knesset majority) also oppose the coalition’s judicial revolution. Note that polls show repeatedly that a majority of Likud voters oppose radical judicial changes not based on consensus.

Secondly, back in 1993-94 and 2005, the settler right and supporters--then, unlike today, in the political minority--sought to portray the anti-withdrawal cause as a fight for human rights, i.e., the human rights of the settler minority that was allegedly being oppressed by the majority. Some readers may recall that in 2005 the settlers’ anti-withdrawal campaign adopted the color orange, deliberately mimicking 2004-05 “Orange Revolution” protests in Ukraine against electoral manipulations that delivered a pro-Russian government in Kiev and trampled democratic rights.

If you believe in your divine right to settle the West Bank and Gaza, then you are capable of believing that removing your settlement, no matter how many Palestinians’ rights have been trampled on to build it, is an infringement of your exclusive human rights. You believe you are the equivalent of Ukrainian freedom campaigners.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significant historically, Smotrich’s statement to the bankers reflects a mindset of ‘payback’. The Netanyahu government’s campaign to muzzle Israeli jurisprudence is, at least for Smotrich and his messianic, racist followers, a form of payback against the Israeli ‘elites’ who dismantled settlements and brought about what religious Zionist journalist Yair Ettinger calls “the collective post-trauma of the National-Religious public.”

That the context, content, and democratic substance are different appears to Smotrich totally irrelevant.

This is where, in the eyes of the Smotriches, muzzling or dismantling Israel’s judicial system is directly about the Greater Land of Israel. That renders it a double-barreled threat to Israeli national security.

Q. And Ben Gvir and the consequences of Israel’s 1967 annexation of Jerusalem?

A. Israel has in recent months experienced a ‘Jerusalem lone-wolf intifada’ in which young Palestinian men from Arab East Jerusalem are attacking Jewish Israelis in Jewish West Jerusalem. The Palestinian attackers, the youngest age 13 (!), are official residents of municipal Jerusalem bearing Israeli IDs that allow them freedom of movement anywhere. Arab Jerusalemites have attacked and killed Israeli Jerusalemites lately outside of a synagogue and at a bus stop.

Unlike in Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank, in Jerusalem you cannot simply send in IDF commandos to cut off the bad guys at the source (how smart that is, is a different issue). Jerusalem, lest we forget, is the ‘eternal, united capital of Israel’. Never mind that some 370,000 Jerusalemites, about 40 percent of the city’s overall population, are Arabs who, beyond drawing social security and health benefits and maybe holding a job in West Jerusalem, remain Palestinian nationalists to the core. Yet, living in sovereign Israel, they can have little recourse to their obvious leadership, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. They are caught between a rock and a hard place and their young male youths are easy prey for the most extreme incitement coming from Gaza and Tehran.

Enter Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir. After every murderous attack against Jews in Jerusalem, he is on the scene to threaten a major military operation and to admonish Israel Police officers for not carrying one out. After all, that is what he promised his extremist electorate: he will restore order among Arabs in Israel.

But Ben Gvir’s Kahanist-messianic background did not equip him to think strategically about what to do with 370,000 angry Arab nationalists who are residents of Israel. Police Commander Kobi Shabtai responds openly to Ben Gvir’s misbegotten demands and states publicly that he will not accept operational directives from Ben Gvir. Military-style operations in East Jerusalem (aggressive military operations on Israeli sovereign territory!?) would be counter-productive.

Still, in a few volatile East Jerusalem neighborhoods Shabtai has reinforced the Israel Police presence. The result is an Arab civil disobedience campaign, barricaded streets, trash fires, etc.

Ben Gvir, a messianic racist who, in sharp contrast to Smotrich, is not efficient and does not know how to work with a bureaucracy--his background is purely anti-Palestinian and anti-Israeli establishment--cannot contain himself. Something has to give between him and Shabtai. Stay tuned on that score.

Where nothing, unfortunately, will give, is with regard to 370,000 anti-Israel Arab Jerusalemites. Yet it is their status that is at the core of Ben Gvir’s dilemma and pathetic behavior in Jerusalem.

Q. Indeed, why did Israel annex them in 1967?

A. Ostensibly, because Jerusalem had to be united as the ’eternal capital of Israel’. But why, in late June 1967, annex 60 square kilometers of villages? Why not just annex the seven square kilometers of urban Jerusalem which constituted Jordanian Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 and (along with then relatively small West Jerusalem) British Mandatory Jerusalem until 1948. Why annex the non-Jerusalem rural periphery?

Here is where the mistakes of post-1967 history explain Ben Gvir’s problem. As a young officer in IDF Headquarters Intelligence during the Six-Day War, I recall vividly the immediate post-war assessment regarding what victorious Israel, sitting on territory stretching from the Suez Canal to the outskirts of Damascus, could expect from the US-led international community. If in 1949 and 1956 the United States forced the IDF to withdraw from Sinai and the Gaza Strip, this time around we would be forced to withdraw not only there but from the Golan and the West Bank, too.

What to do before the United Nations Security Council convenes? Decide what we really must hold onto and create a fait accompli! And what we really needed, the Labor-led government of Israel decided, was a united Jerusalem. A team of geographers and IDF generals was given a mandate to propose, within a few days, new borders for annexation.

The annexation team decided that merely holding onto those seven square kilometers that actually define East Jerusalem (roughly, from the Temple Mount to and comprising Mount Scopus-Mount of Olives, including the holy places of the three monotheistic religions) would be militarily indefensible. So it drew a line on the map to include every West Bank hillside to the north, east and south of Jerusalem from which Jordanian snipers had fired into Israeli Jerusalem before the war. In other words, the team assumed that we would shortly be forced to withdraw from the West Bank, and the Jordanian snipers would be back. (Prior to the war, as an officer-trainee I had lain in night ambushes in Jewish Jerusalem, facing those Jordanian snipers to the east.)

Oh, and when Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek told the team that a proper capital of Israel needed an airport of its own, a line was drawn around a finger of Arab villages and refugee camps pointing north, all the way to the outskirts of Ramallah. There lay a British-era landing strip known as Atarot or Kalandia. Tens of thousands more rural Palestinian Arabs became Jerusalemites. And today the airport is closed because Ramallah housing expanded right up to the runway.

Thus did the expanders of Jerusalem attach to it a multitude of villages that had never in history been a part of the city. What might have been an absorbable Arab population in the seven square kilometers is now nearing 400,000. Ben Gvir does not have a clue what to do about it.

So unmanageable are parts of East Jerusalem that the security fence leaves some of them beyond their own municipality. Take a ride north from Jerusalem to Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority, and you drive through a gate in the fence, then through Kafr Aqab with its tens of thousands of Arab Jerusalemites: where no Israeli police officer dares tread; where you can drive on the wrong side of the road unhindered; and where the Jerusalem municipality calculates municipal taxes using only drones to measure building size because city officials stay clear of Kafr Aqab.

United Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel? Most Israelis live with this definition by simply ignoring Arab East Jerusalem, where they never set foot. But now there is a lone-wolf intifada of young Palestinian Jerusalemites. They are free to move about and threaten prosperous Jewish neighborhoods and to barricade run-down Arab neighborhoods.

Ben Gvir take note: this is the doing of a left-led Israeli government in 1967! In retrospect, it made incredible strategic miscalculations about US intentions and the fate of the occupied territories. Miscalculations that, unlike in the case of the Oslo Accords and the Gaza withdrawal, subsequent governments, left and right, have only made worse.

Now, Ben Gvir, it is your turn. And note that Ramadan--always volatile in Jerusalem--is only a month away.