The Smotrich phenomenon - how Religious Zionist Party got 194,000 votes

Independently none of these movements would have secured enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Bezalel Smotrich is seen with supporters and party members at the Religious Zionist Party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (photo credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90)
Bezalel Smotrich is seen with supporters and party members at the Religious Zionist Party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 23, 2021.
(photo credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90)
One of the most notable election results was the impressive showing of the hard-line Religious Zionist Party (RZP), which looks to have won at least six seats in the new Knesset – and it could rise to seven.
The electoral chances of the party, headed by MK Bezalel Smotrich, initially looked poor, and it was not even expected to cross the electoral threshold. But that was before it united with the far-right, Kahanist Otzma Yehudit Party and started taking off in the polls.
Although at first glance the Religious Zionist Party’s vote haul appears impressive, a similar combination of the National Union, Bayit Yehudi and Otzma took five seats in the April 2019 elections.
Nevertheless, a tally of six seats is a significant accomplishment, equaling that of long-established parties such as Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu.
Smotrich also worked out a deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whereby the latter placed RZP candidate Ofir Sofer on the Likud Party list in return for Smotrich uniting with Otzma Yehudit and placing its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, third on the joint list. This means that RZP will have at least one extra MK above its voter tally in the Knesset.
So how was Smotrich able to secure more than 194,000 votes for what is essentially an ultranationalist and religiously hard-line political outfit?
Although the Religious Zionist Party took as its name the term for the community of Orthodox, Zionist Israeli Jews, sometimes also known as the National-Religious community, it is in truth an amalgamation of several ideologically distinct political movements that came together out of political expediency.
And this is the secret of Smotrich’s success – because, independently, none of these movements would have secured enough votes to enter the Knesset.
Smotrich himself is the head of the National Union Party, which represents the hard-line, conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community and is one of the two largest voting blocs within the Religious Zionist Party.
Otzma Yehudit is the successor to the far-right Kahanist Kach Party and the other major voting bloc with the united list.
By looking at recent elections, it is possible to gain an approximate estimate of the electoral strength of Smotrich’s faction and Otzma.
In the April 2019 election, the National Union, Bayit Yehudi and Otzma united to form the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) and garnered 159,000 votes, amounting to 3.7% of the total vote and giving it five seats in the Knesset.
In the next election in September, Otzma was frozen out of the political alliances on the Right and ran by itself. It received 83,000 votes, 1.88% of the total – equivalent to more than two Knesset seats but under the electoral threshold of 3.25%, so it failed to enter the Knesset.
The National Union of hard-line religious-Zionist voters and Otzma would appear to have a roughly similar electoral value, with even a small advantage to Otzma.
But the party added at least another 34,000 votes between its first run as URP to give it an extra seat.
Where did those votes come from?
Before the union between National Union and Otzma, the latter had united with Noam – a fringe, extremist, anti-LGBT party representing the very outer edges of the hard-line, conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community.
It is thought that this party might be worth 10,000 to 15,000 voters, although this is based on estimates, since the party has never actually contested an election on its own.
Another significant tranche of voters came from the Chabad movement. Although often classified as a subsector of the ultra-Orthodox, large parts of the community are inclined to vote for far-right parties due to the emphasis of the last leader of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on preserving Jewish control of the biblical Land of Israel.
In Kfar Chabad, the Religious Zionist Party took 59% of the vote, amounting to some 1,500 of the town’s votes.
Estimates of the total number of Chabad voters in Israel are put at between 30,000 and 40,000, and it is thought by Chabad sources that RZP likely picked up about half of the total Chabad vote countrywide, meaning 15,000 to 20,000 more votes.
Finally, RZP also performed well, relatively speaking, in some ultra-Orthodox strongholds, such as Betar Illit, where it took 10% of the vote, amounting to 2,100 votes, and El’ad, where it also took 10% of the vote (1,900 votes), and Bnei Brak, where it got 3,600 votes.
If this share of the ultra-Orthodox vote was obtained more broadly across all ultra-Orthodox voters, it would amount to a significant addition to RZP’s vote tally.
Those in the ultra-Orthodox community voting for Smotrich’s party are largely thought to be the so-called “modern ultra-Orthodox,” a small subsector of the community, often from the younger generation, many of whom have received a higher education and have integrated into the workforce. Some have served in the IDF, and are less hostile to the state than others in the sector.
A final factor in RZP’s increased share of the vote above its April 2019 tally is the leadership of Smotrich himself.
In 2019, then-leader of Bayit Yehudi Rabbi Rafi Peretz headed the URP list. Peretz’s leadership was widely criticized as uninspiring, while Smotrich is known for his charisma, sharp intelligence and energy, which could have attracted more voters from the mainstream religious-Zionist community.