For all of the criticism of the two hardliners’ recent comments, what they are really saying is even more problematic than most people appreciate

Israeli ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are not shy about expressing their often-blunt thoughts about Israeli policies in the West Bank and those policies’ critics. In what has become a familiar pattern, Ben Gvir caused a stir last week when he said during an interview on Israel’s Channel 12 that “my right, my wife’s, my children’s, to move around on the roads of Judea and Samaria is more important than the right of movement of the Arabs,” adding after a few more words that “my right to life takes precedence over their right to movement.” Ben Gvir received a hailstorm of criticism domestically, but also from the State Department, which condemned his comments and called them “incongruent with advancing respect for human rights for all.” This, in turn, prompted a response from Ben Gvir, in which he claimed—notwithstanding his actual remarks—that he was not prioritizing Israeli Jews’ freedom of movement over Palestinians’ freedom of movement, but only prioritizing the right to life over freedom of movement. Not content to sit this one out, Smotrich weighed in a few days later on Army Radio, saying, “People who want to preach to us are hypocrites. There is no more moral army; there is no more moral country. Most of our critics around the world are hypocrites, to say nothing of the Americans. Look at the way they acted in Afghanistan. Look at the way they acted in Iraq. They’ve got no business preaching to us.”

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, 2019

None of this is out of the ordinary. We have all become inured to Ben Gvir’s brand of routine Jewish supremacist racism and to Smotrich’s insistence that anything and everything that Israel does in the West Bank is justified and above board. The repeated Israeli insistence that the IDF is the most moral army in the world and that Israeli morality and democracy are impeccable is neither new nor confined to the current Israeli government. In many cases, when something objectionable takes place, Israeli officials’ first reaction is to deny that Israeli behavior was indeed objectionable, and when evidence comes to light indicating otherwise, officials acknowledge that they were wrong. What frequently distinguishes Smotrich and always distinguishes Ben Gvir is the insistence that you believe them rather than your lying eyes. Despite the video clip in which Ben Gvir clearly and unambiguously asserts a greater right of movement for himself and his family than for Palestinians, and only later adds the piece about right to life trumping freedom of movement, he insists that you did not hear him say what he said. When Smotrich called for Huwara to be erased without any qualification or hedge, he insisted that you did not hear him say what he said and that he only meant buildings fronting the main road and people engaged in active terrorism. So it is easy to chalk up the latest ugliness and doubling down on defending it as the familiar dynamic at work. 

However, what makes Smotrich and Ben Gvir exceptional is not their refusal to acknowledge missteps, even when those missteps are as clear as day. In this, they are not all that different than many other shameless Israeli politicians. What makes them exceptional is that their ideology leads them to conclude that missteps cannot actually occur. When Binyamin Netanyahu calls the IDF the world’s most moral army, he is making an argument that is connected to tangible behavior. He is arguing that the IDF takes extraordinary care in operating in crowded spaces, that it goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties, that it sacrifices the element of surprise in order to minimize collateral damage, and that it investigates its failures and holds people accountable. The salient point here is not whether you agree with these assertions or not; it is that they are assertions connected to what Israel does.

IDF soldiers in the West Bank town of Huwara, February 2023 by IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Smotrich and Ben Gvir, in contrast, are not making arguments based on what they say that Israel does. They are making arguments based on what they say Israel is. When Smotrich says that there is no more moral country than Israel, it is because his ideological worldview is one where the Jewish people were divinely bestowed with an inalienable chosenness, and thus a Jewish state is inherently more moral than any other state. It is not connected to behavior, but to metaphysical being. There can be no legitimate criticism of Israel’s actions, because the exercise of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel is a fulfillment of God’s will, no matter how that exercise of sovereignty is carried out. To a lesser extent, this applies to Ben Gvir as well. Ben Gvir absolutely believes that his rights inside the West Bank trump those of Palestinians, and it is not about citizenship categories or even about security. It is a matter of might making right, and since Israel holds the power, it can do what it wants unfettered and should not be subject to outside criticism for it.

This is reminiscent of an infamous line deployed by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2009 when asked about his invitation to host Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir despite the genocide being committed by Sudanese forces in Darfur. Erdoğan’s response was that a genocide could not be taking place because it is impossible for Muslims to commit genocide. Smotrich is cut from a similar cloth, and his comments reflect as much. Israel cannot be criticized on grounds of morality because its Jewish nature makes it inherently moral, no matter what it does. He is happy to bring up U.S. behavior in other places around the world as a rhetorical shielding tactic, but that is ancillary to what he is actually voicing. This is Jewish supremacy in its purest and most unadulterated ideological form, and it is the animating feature of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism.

Nablus, the West Bank

Smotrich and Ben Gvir do not only believe that Israel has a right to the land in the West Bank that trumps the Palestinian right to the same land, which is a routine nationalist or religious claim that is mirrored on the Palestinian side. They believe that Israel has a right to behave in any way it wants, and that doing so is inherently moral and just. This is what makes them so radical and so dangerous. Do not mistake their extremism for the garden-variety kind, as it goes well beyond what many comprehend.