As protests and unrest swept across Israel this week, many Israelis issued impassioned calls for moderation and dialogue to resolve one of the most serious domestic crises in the country’s history.
But one government leader seemed determined to raise the stakes even higher: Bezalel Smotrich, the settler activist who serves as finance minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Mr. Smotrich is a leading proponent of the government plan to assert greater control over the Supreme Court, the issue that has fueled weeks of mass protests.
“We must not stop the reform in any way,” Mr. Smotrich said in a video message to his supporters on Monday before Mr. Netanyahu announced a delay of the plan. Mr. Smotrich instructed his followers to counter the antigovernment protests with demonstrations of their own, a call that prompted widespread fears of violent confrontations on Israel’s streets. “We will not let them steal our voice and our country,” he added.
Then Mr. Smotrich resumed his day job, preparing for a new national budget. That afternoon, he gave a detailed speech to lawmakers about fiscal responsibility and market uncertainty. “The greatest service that we can do for Israel’s citizens,” he said in Parliament, “is to combat inflation.”
Mr. Smotrich, 43, is a study in contrasts. He is one of the most extreme voices in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history — but is also a well-organized strategist with an eye for detail, according to politicians on both sides of the political divide who have worked with him.
He declined to be interviewed, but, to try to give a different impression of himself, he let a reporter glimpse part of his routine at the Finance Ministry. He spent the time discussing competition law in the credit industry, surrounded by senior civil servants.
It was a sight that contrasted with his public image as the man at the heart of Israel’s three current crises: political turmoil over the judicial overhaul at home, rising violence in the occupied West Bank, and a growing rift with foreign governments — especially the United States — and the Jewish diaspora in the United States and Britain.
“He’s a contradiction,” said Mossi Raz, a leftist former lawmaker who established an unlikely rapport with Mr. Smotrich in Parliament.
“He’s a person who wants to talk, who wants to understand,” Mr. Raz said. “He’s curious about other people, what they think, why they think differently.” Despite all that, Mr. Raz said, “He’s really extreme in his views, and that I cannot accept at all.”
When Mr. Netanyahu took power in December at the head of a coalition packed with divisive ministers, Mr. Smotrich stood out for his inflammatory statements, emerging as a lightning rod for criticism in Israel and abroad.
To Israelis, the storm around him is unsurprising. Mr. Smotrich has for years attracted controversy for his extreme views. He has supported segregation between Arabs and Jews in maternity wards, backed Jewish property developers who won’t sell to Arabs, and called for Israel to be governed by Jewish law. In his 20s, he helped parade goats and donkeys through Jerusalem for an anti-gay protest.
He also seeks to establish permanent Israeli control over the West Bank, where he lives and which Israel occupied in 1967, but never formally annexed. He opposes a Palestinian state, seeking instead to cement the presence of the roughly 500,000 Israelis in the West Bank.
Now, in office, Mr. Smotrich has been one of the most vocal advocates of the government’s efforts to curb the power of the Supreme Court, which he has long opposed because of its restrictions on the most ambitious efforts of the settler movement to take more land in the West Bank. He has also inflamed tensions in the West Bank, where deadly violence is at one of its highest levels this century — most prominently when he said in February that Huwara, a Palestinian town at the center of the unrest, should be “erased” by Israel.
This month, at an event in Paris, he stood before a map showing Jordan — a neighboring country that shares a fragile peace with Israel — as an Israeli province, and declared, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”
On a trip this month to Washington, U.S. officials refused to meet him and liberal Jewish groups and Israeli expatriates demonstrated against him.
One of Mr. Smotrich’s closest allies said that his inflammatory statements about the Palestinians simply represented his core ideals.
“This is what he believes in,” said Daniella Weiss, a former mayor of Kedumim, the West Bank settlement where Mr. Smotrich lives. “The land of Israel is for Israel — and not for any other entity, body or organization. It’s a Jewish state.”
Speaking the truth as he saw it, she said, was “more important than any diplomatic manipulation.”
The son of a right-wing rabbi, Mr. Smotrich believes that every part of Israel and the occupied territories was promised to Jews by God.
He has described himself as a “proud homophobe” and, like many ultraconservatives in Israel, does not shake women’s hands for religious reasons. He has opposed holding soccer games on the Jewish sabbath and last year suggested running the economy according to the laws of the Jewish Bible.
“They tried many economic theories, they tried capitalism, they tried socialism, but they didn’t try one thing,” Mr. Smotrich told Mishpacha, a religious magazine. “If we implement the Torah, we will have economic abundance,” he added. Some supporters later downplayed the comment, saying he didn’t mean it literally.
As a young activist in 2005, Mr. Smotrich was detained for weeks — though never charged — after being arrested during unsuccessful protests to prevent the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza.
In 2017, he published a plan setting out how Israel might establish permanent control over the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 but never formally annexed. He proposed that Palestinians would be denied voting rights, at least initially, and that those who did not accept Israeli control would be paid to emigrate, or killed if they resorted to violence.
Mr. Smotrich was elected to Parliament in 2015, later becoming leader of a far-right party, Religious Zionism. As a lawmaker, his longstanding animus against the Supreme Court was exacerbated when the justices struck down a law he had sponsored that would have allowed settlers to build on private Palestinian land.
He briefly served as minister for transport in an earlier Netanyahu administration, with supporters and opponents alike acknowledging his meticulousness and ability to propel major road projects in both Israel and the West Bank.
Last year, it was Mr. Smotrich’s party, not Mr. Netanyahu’s, that first set out the detailed plans that evolved into the government’s proposal to restrict the power of the courts.
In addition to his role as finance minister, Mr. Smotrich persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February to grant him influence over part of the Defense Ministry, giving him control over some civilian affairs in West Bank settlements.
“He’s brilliant, he’s very smart, he’s very incisive,” said Yisrael Medad, a veteran settler activist who has worked with Mr. Smotrich
But sometimes, Mr. Medad added, he hurt himself with ill-considered comments. “There’s a lack of coordination between his brain and his mouth,” he said.
And his comments on Huwara, a Palestinian town in the northern West Bank where a Palestinian gunman shot dead two Israeli settlers on Feb. 26, prompting violent reprisals by Israeli settlers, may have been a turning point.
Mr. Smotrich responded to arson attacks by the settlers on Huwara by saying it was the responsibility of the state, not civilian settlers, to destroy the town.
“Huwara needs to be erased,” Mr. Smotrich said at a business conference. “The State of Israel needs to do that — heaven forbid not private individuals.”
For some opponents of the judicial overhaul, those comments were a clarifying moment.
Dozens of reserve pilots subsequently met with the air force commander to express their reluctance to volunteer for optional service if the overhaul was fully enacted. They cited Mr. Smotrich’s comments on Huwara as an example of what they feared might become state policy — and military practice — if the Supreme Court’s authority were undermined.
Mr. Smotrich later expressed “sincere regret” for his comments and said that he had only envisaged demolishing some houses in Huwara.
But for some, the damage had already been done. The number of reservists reporting for duty in March declined, as concern over the overhaul spread beyond the air force. At least some of that concern was linked directly to Mr. Smotrich’s comments, some reservists said. The reservists’ reluctance were a key factor in the suspension of the overhaul on Monday.
For Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister and a leader of the protests, “There is the beginning of an understanding that the two crises are connected.”
Some protesters “are starting to understand that this is not just about the Supreme Court,” she added. “We are in the midst of a battle not only for the future of Israel, but the nature of Israel.”
And during protests in Tel Aviv, demonstrators have highlighted the government’s failure to prevent settler violence in the West Bank.
“Where were you at Huwara?” crowds chanted at police officers.
Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.