Smotrich to 'Post': People are anxious, but we’re not what they think we are

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Smotrich discussed the coming new year, finding forgiveness and engaging with opposition from a place of understanding.

 Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister and Religious Zionism Party head in his office, 2023. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister and Religious Zionism Party head in his office, 2023.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

When one entered the Finance Ministry headquarters, just days before Rosh Hashanah, the digital screens in the lobby bore a meaningful message: “On the eve of the Jewish New Year, we should all engage in asking each other for forgiveness,” one of the slides urged the employees.

One floor above the lobby decorated with these important messages, The Jerusalem Post sat down with Bezalel Smotrich (The Religious Zionist Party, RZP), Israel’s finance minister, and asked him, in the theme of the High Holy Days, if he himself had anyone he would like to ask for forgiveness, regarding things he either did or said in the past Hebrew-calendar year.

Smotrich’s response not only offered a glimpse into the personal challenges he faces but also set the tone for a thoughtful and candid exchange.

“First, I must ask for forgiveness from my wife and children,” Smotrich replied. 

“They are the ones who bear the brunt of my demanding work. Being the finance minister is like juggling three jobs. I also hold a position as minister in the Defense Ministry and serve as the chairman of a political party. At times, I find myself breaking the rule that I’ve set for myself and working even on Fridays and Saturday nights. So, I want to apologize to them first,” Smotrich shared, with a hint of regret in his voice.

 Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Jerusalem Post's Zvika Klein interviewing him in the Finance Minsiter's office, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Jerusalem Post's Zvika Klein interviewing him in the Finance Minsiter's office, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

He works around the clock. Twice during the interview, he asked his secretary for a double espresso, in order to stay alert. Smotrich’s apology to his family extended beyond his immediate circle. He recognized the tough decisions he has to make as finance minister, decisions that can lead him to be perceived as the “bad guy” by those advocating for more funding in various sectors such as health, welfare, and education. He explained that during times of inflation, fiscal responsibility and social sensitivity require him to say “no” to some requests, a role he does not relish.

“I HAVE to make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire country. But those decisions aren’t always easy or popular. It’s crucial for people to understand the constraints and challenges we face,” Smotrich emphasized.

He also stressed the importance of understanding that everyone has valid points and deserves support. Still, limitations exist, especially during economic challenges. To illustrate his commitment to various sectors, he listed specific budget allocations, such as “NIS 370 million for special education, NIS 200 million for welfare ministry institutions, and NIS 40 million for ulpan (Hebrew language classes) teachers.

Asked if he doesn’t by any chance regret certain ways in which he or his peers in the government have been acting since their election during the past year, Smotrich answered, as he usually does, with a long and complex answer. 

“My duty [as finance minister] is to represent all Israelis, regardless of their background or beliefs. I firmly believe that our economic policies should be based on principles that benefit the entire nation.” 

He expressed concern about the rising intensity of discourse within Israeli society and highlighted the role played by certain elements that aim to exacerbate polarization. 

“It is essential to recognize that these issues are often exacerbated by various factors, including media sensationalism and social network dynamics. While I acknowledge that radicalization of discourse has taken place, I do not believe that this polarization is as widespread as it may appear,” the minister stated.

“I firmly believe that the majority of Israeli society leans toward cooperation, empathy, and coexistence. Many people are willing to engage in constructive debates and discussions, even when they have differing viewpoints. It is essential to distinguish between the mainstream majority and the small but vocal minority that seeks to intensify polarization for their own agenda.

“In my view, our role as leaders should be to foster an environment where all voices are heard, respected, and valued. We must promote healthy dialogue and open-mindedness to bridge the gaps in our society. 

“It is possible to disagree without resorting to hatred or animosity. By focusing on our common goals and shared values as Israelis, we can work together to overcome these divisions,” he said.

Smotrich highlighted the diversity within his own family, stating, “We have family members who are religious, secular, urban, and settlers.” He pointed out that his mother’s side of the family is primarily secular and based in the North. Despite these differences, he emphasized, “There is no hatred between us, but there are disputes. Yes, we respect each other.” He recounted how when visiting his secular family, they would serve him meals on disposable dishes due to kashrut concerns, and he never insisted they refrain from driving on Shabbat, respecting their personal choices.

A unique and distinct world view

AS THE conversation delved deeper into the source of the Israeli societal divide, Smotrich remarked, “It is rooted in differing values and cultures.” He acknowledged that his unique background as a religious settler with a distinct worldview might raise concerns among those unfamiliar with him and his colleagues.

Regarding the government’s role, Smotrich expressed his belief that it is their responsibility to promote harmony and seek common ground through agreements and compromises. He clarified, “It’s not just about securing agreements aligned with my position.” 

However, he expressed frustration with the challenge of finding genuine partners for such agreements. He criticized Benny Gantz, the chairman of the National Unity Party, saying, “Gantz prioritizes polls over dialogue and compromise when it matters most, and that’s disheartening.”

“It’s not only about style or language; it’s also reflected in actions, not just in matters of reform. I represent a portion of the people, having received a mandate of 64 seats, but I’m aware that there’s a whole public out there with different perspectives. I allocate budgets for initiatives that may not align with my personal values, and I can do more. 

“I consider the values of people who think differently than I do. In my opinion, everyone wants the best for the State of Israel,” he said of both sides of the political map. “I strive to make space for everyone, respect everyone, and cherish the diversity of views. There’s a spectrum of opinions, and that’s a good thing.”

Smotrich said there was a moment when he actually grasped the anxiety of those who oppose the reform. 

“I realized that there are people in this process who live with anxiety. I come from a half-secular, half-religious family, and I never force anyone into any specific beliefs. My father, a rabbi, with his white beard, never pressured anyone either. The protests against us are far from what I believe and think. In fact, I thought to myself: If theoretically one day a leftist government could rise, perhaps with Arab parties, holding 64 mandates... Just the thought of it puts me on edge. In my mind, they would immediately consider establishing a Palestinian state or a state of all its citizens.” 

He then compared this to the situation Israel stood through this year. 

“When people on the other side of the political map understood [that] there will be a government composed of figures like Smotrich, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the way they see me or think of me – I understand that people are anxious, and I need to address whether our actions have contributed to that anxiety or have been helpful. I believe that, as a government, we have an obligation to reassure the public and demonstrate that we’re not what they may think we are,” he said with concern.

Asked when his approach towards his opponents changed, Smotrich said it took place around the month of March when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to freeze the judicial reform legislation. 

“I thought it was a wrong move, though I respect his decision,” he said, sharing that “I began meeting with hundreds of individuals from various sectors, including the economy, real estate, hi-tech, and the business community. We met about twice a week, often late at night.”

AT A CERTAIN point during the talks on the amendment to the reasonableness law, Smotrich, one of the most right-wing politicians in the government spoke up to his coalition members, and said that it may be time to take a break and discuss since “people are hurting.” 

“I urged my colleagues in both the opposition and the coalition to seek a compromise, even if it meant slowing down the process,” Smotrich explained.

“I understand that my background and beliefs can be intimidating to some. But it’s essential for people to engage with each other, to have conversations, and to see the common ground we share,” he stressed.

Asked what he’s learned from this complex process, the minister shared, “that the majority of people are fundamentally good. While there’s a minority within the protest movement that lacks boundaries, it’s important to recognize that the mainstream cannot always control the extremist elements. For instance, the mainstream [of the protesters] often struggles to distance themselves from disruptive individuals like Shikma Bressler [one of the leaders of the protest movement] – which harms the economy. Some people are actively trying to damage Israel’s global credit rating, and that’s concerning.”

The Post argued in response that some might posit that Smotrich has strained foreign relations due to his statement about “erasing” the Palestinian village of Huwara, after a terror attack.

“One hundred percent, but I realized that I used the wrong terminology,” Smotrich acknowledged. “I clarified this in a lengthy post. The idea to ‘erase’ never crossed my mind, and I apologize if anyone interpreted it that way. Those who continue to harp on this mistake are being unfair and causing harm to the government by distorting what actually happened.”

He went on and criticized former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo for saying in an AP interview that “There is an apartheid state,” he said, referring to Judea and Samaria. “As for the former head of the Mossad’s statement about apartheid, it’s beyond comprehension. It’s simply untrue, and I fail to understand his motives. He went too far.”

Smotrich made a parallel between the current Israeli divide and a couple that hasn’t invested in their relationship, other than speaking about the responsibilities at home and in educating their children. “We’ve been living as a married couple for 75 years – studying together, serving in the army together – but we don’t really know each other,” he said, explaining that “The catalyst isn’t the reform; it’s that the Left returned to power for a year experiencing something new. After a year, it ended, and a right-wing government took over, without any Center-Left members, as was in the past. This is the most conservative government in our history.”

Referring to the events of the summer of 2005, he said: “Some now understand how I felt during the Gush Katif evacuation. Though it’s been 17 years, it still feels like yesterday. It’s not just the expulsion; it’s the indifference and fiendish delight. Where was the empathy towards us during the Oslo Accords? Having experienced it, I feel obligated not to inflict it on others,” Smotrich said, “I have the shivers just from talking about this situation,” he confessed. Smotrich explained that he not only wants Israelis to feel at ease and at home in Israel but also Diaspora Jews. 

“I also am a public servant for them, and want them to feel at home in Israel. I know that many Jews worldwide think differently than I do, but I would like them to consider our right-wing government as their own. I invest time and resources in understanding how we strengthen our common bonds. I would like for myself to feel comfortable when I’m with them, and to let them feel at ease with us, recognizing that we are the home of every Jew. This is a complex situation.”

While visiting the US, Smotrich has met secretly with a number of heads of large Jewish organizations, with a number asking that their meeting be kept under the radar, since many of their constituents would probably be against it. He respected this request, but a number of media outlets publicized the meeting a number of months later, nevertheless. 

“I often ponder how a Jewish individual in the US must feel when they believe they have to conceal their meeting with the finance minister of the State of Israel. It doesn’t matter who I am; it’s about being a proud Jew.

Disagreement is fine; they can argue with me. Ultimately, there’s a State of Israel with an elected government and ministers. I don’t totally understand this situation, but I respect it. Those who know me understand that it’s not easy to discourage me. I have faith in what I do.”

Acknowledging opposition and engaging respectfully

HE ACKNOWLEDGED the opposition to these reforms and expressed his willingness to engage in a constructive dialogue with those who disagree. Smotrich also stressed the importance of reducing the power of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which he viewed as an elite group with disproportionate influence over appointments.

“We need to ensure that judicial appointments are made with a broader representation of the public’s interests in mind,” Smotrich said.

“Resilience is crucial in this role. There are tough decisions to be made, and not everyone will be pleased with them. But we must remain steadfast in our commitment to what is best for Israel’s future,” Smotrich asserted.

“I envision an Israel where all citizens, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to thrive and contribute to our nation’s success. It’s a future worth working towards,” Smotrich said.

A few weeks ago, Smotrich stated, “Israel’s economy remains strong amidst global instability.” He acknowledged “high growth and a solid job market,” but admitted that inflation, though lower than in other countries, fell short of budget expectations and might persist at elevated levels, drawing criticism from media and experts.

Smotrich responded, saying, “In November, predictions may change. Inflation’s global status shifted; it’s a complex matter. My quotes were based on our Facebook post, highlighting our strong performance globally, but we acknowledge the need for budget adjustments.”

Regarding the impact of polarization on the economy, Smotrich admitted, “It can’t be ignored. The weakening shekel’s link to reform lacks a logical economic explanation. Mood-driven stock market fluctuations and a single influential player’s sway are concerning.”

Despite challenges, Smotrich affirmed, “We’re not in a crisis. The new Import Law aims to reduce living costs, following Switzerland’s success, with over 50% import increase.”

He concluded, “The Israeli economy will endure and thrive, supported by successful investments. Political debates won’t undermine our shared values and national strength.•