Say what you want, but they do make a brilliant duo.
One is a lifelong provocateur, grabbing headlines with racist comments and waving guns in people’s faces, including a Palestinian parking attendant just doing his job.
The other is less prone to hysterical outbursts (though not immune), and more focused on the job at hand: ensuring Jewish supremacy in what they both view as Israel’s God-given land.
They are both Jewish extremists. Itamar Ben-Gvir operates in the light, catching the eye of the public and the press. Bezalel Smotrich moves behind closed doors. One is a man of excess, a clown. The other has maintained an image of modesty and considers himself an ideologue.
While Ben-Gvir spews outrageous statements to a pigeon press, Smotrich quietly advances decisions and laws that could decisively alter the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and deny a state to the latter.
A decade ago, both were seen as fringe radicals who would never get anywhere near government. How times change.
Ben-Gvir had been excused from military service due to his unorthodox views. On his part, Smotrich was mostly known to Israelis for his anti-LGBT attitude, a self-declared “proud homophobe” who mocked members of the LGBT community.
Today, they are still radicals, just no longer fringe.
Ben-Gvir is Israel’s national security minister, and Smotrich is Israel’s finance minister.
Ben-Gvir grabs headlines with racist comments. Smotrich wants to ensure Jewish supremacy in what they both see as Israel's God-given land.
If they left the ruling coalition, the government would fall, so they hold the balance of power, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give them expanded powers.
Ben-Gvir was put in charge of not only Israel's police but also part of Israel's security forces in the West Bank.
Smotrich got the purse strings plus another important position in the Defence Ministry, giving him oversight over civilian activities in the West Bank.
These two foxes in the chicken coop come from widely different backgrounds and represent two different ideological facets of religious Zionism.
Ben-Gvir was born in a suburb of Jerusalem to a father of Iraqi-Kurdish origin. He came to religious Zionism in his teens, during the First Intifada, through the prism of nationalism and with the "realisation that Arabs had to be pushed back".
He was drawn to the movement created by Meir Kahane, a radical ultra-nationalist rabbi whose violent ideology called for the expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank. The party Kahane created would later be banned.
Smotrich came from a religious Ashkenazi family. His father was an orthodox rabbi. He studied at a yeshiva (Jewish religious school) in Jerusalem, known as a religious Zionist hub, and came to the movement through religion as much as ideology.
This dual identity – of fiery nationalism and religious fervour – serves to separate the outward-facing religious Zionists from the inward-facing ultra-Orthodox.
The ultra-Orthodox community is insular by design to protect its identity. Ultra-Orthodox parties look out for their own interests but do not seek to change the state.
Religious Zionism, in particular the brand that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich defend, is very different. It seeks to impose the supremacy of its ideology.
From the ashes
Ben-Gvir and Smotrich both left a mark on some of the most controversial moments in Israeli history.
Ben-Gvir made his first waves in 1995, when he proudly showed a piece of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's car, promising: "We'll get to him too."
Weeks later, a far-right Jewish extremist killed Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords.
Smotrich registered in 2005, during protests against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to dismantle settlements in Gaza and withdraw.
A dual identity of fiery nationalism and religious fervour separates the outward-facing religious Zionists from the inward-facing ultra-Orthodox.
Smotrich was arrested by the Israeli internal security agency Shin Bet, who suspected that he was planning to block one of Israel's main highways using flammable material, but was never charged.
Both those moments — the Oslo Agreement and the Gaza disengagement — were moments of hope for some but times of despair and anguish for the far-right.
Today, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich can justify their past positions to the Israeli public, saying, "Look where it led us", and pointing to the horrific Hamas attacks on 7 October.
In the wake of the attacks, they have been clear about one core element of their political identity: they will forever stand against the formation of a Palestinian state.
In common with most religious Zionists, they both think a Palestinian state would be an existential danger to Israel. Indeed, they 'voted with their feet' years ago and live in Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir lives in Kiryat Arba, a settlement in Hebron known for its radicalism, even compared to other settlements. Hebron is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but Ben-Gvir sees the city in the heart of biblical lands that belong to Israel.
Smotrich lives in Kedumim, having moved from Beit El, a settlement just a few miles from Ramallah. His house is said to be built outside the urban plans for the settlement, meaning that it is illegal under Israeli law, let alone international law.
Smotrich lives by the principles he preaches, advocating for legalising all the so-called 'hilltop settlements' and allowing unchecked settlement expansion.
As finance minister, he advanced a plan to legalise most, if not all, of those outposts, which are generally built on private Palestinian land deep in the Occupied West Bank.
The overt goal of those settlements is to kill the prospect of a two-state solution by making the Jewish presence impossible to remove, even from major Palestinian cities.
Defying the state
One thing that sets Smotrich and Ben-Gvir apart from other religious Zionist leaders is their deep defiance of the State of Israel and its institutions.
This may seem paradoxical, given the nationalistic nature of their beliefs, but it is deeply ingrained in their personal history, including Ben-Gvir's affiliation to a banned party and the Israeli army's decision not to let him serve.
As a teenager, he was often arrested by the same police force he now heads. As a lawyer, he defended far-right activists prosecuted by Israel's justice system over acts of sectarian violence and anti-Palestinian attacks.
Smotrich's run-in with the Shin Bet in 2005 had a similar effect. He has called for the agency's authority to be reined in on multiple occasions.
What sets Smotrich and Ben-Gvir apart from other religious Zionist leaders is their deep defiance of the State of Israel and its institutions.
As the 'thinker' of the two, his opposition to the state was also ideological. He sees himself as defending an alternative State of Israel, one that is less liberal, fusing nationalism with deep religious conservatism.
Both saw themselves as fully outside the system, one they needed to conquer, shatter, shape anew. Even as ministers, they acted as if they were outsiders.
It is no wonder they backed Netanyahu's judicial reform, which seeks to fundamentally alter the nature of the state. A key architect of those plans was Simcha Rothman, an important member of the Religious Zionism party.
This also explains why, as national security minister, Ben-Gvir has spent much time second-guessing his subordinates, including within the Israeli police, accusing them of being too lenient with political opponents or Palestinians.
As ministers, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have also butted heads with Israel's top military brass, who they see as closet lefties. They, in turn, see the dynamic duo as dangerous amateurs.
The road to success
Smotrich was elected in 2015 in a stroke of luck. He was eighth on his party's list when nobody expected the party to get eight seats.
But, as Italian thinker Machiavelli said, while luck can play a role in getting to power, only talent explains a "prince's" ability to keep it.
Smotrich was no exception, quickly becoming an effective advocate for his radical ideas in the Knesset. His experience as a religious student, where debate is central, and later as a lawyer, made him a formidable tribune.
He advocated for the annexation of the West Bank by Israel and for the formalisation of Israel's rule over Judea and Samaria (the biblical name for the West Bank).
Smotrich has advocated for the annexation of the West Bank by Israel and for the formalisation of Israel's rule over it.
Ben-Gvir's political breakthrough came much later, in May 2021, during the Gaza war of that month and the ensuing sectarian tensions between Palestinians and Jews.
As they attacked one another, Ben-Gvir's brand of gun-shoving street showmanship was on point, and he exploited the crisis to the full.
Later, he renewed an Israeli far-right tradition, one that others (including Ariel Sharon) had invoked so successfully in the past: to stoke discord at the Haram al-Sharif compound where the third holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa mosque, is located. Jews call this compound the Temple Mount, a place of paramount sanctity in their religion.
As Occupied East Jerusalem remained tense, Ben-Gvir urged Jews not to relent and abandon what he saw as their God-given right to the holiest site in Judaism, whatever the consequences.
Bibi, the matchmaker
What truly gave rise to Smotrich and Ben Gvir as a political force was none other than Netanyahu himself.
Following multiple Israeli elections, the embattled prime minister played matchmaker. He arranged for the two men, who differ so significantly in style and (to an extent) substance, to join forces.
As is often the case with Bibi Netanyahu, the calculus was short-term and tactical. His goal was to preserve as much of the right-wing vote as possible.
In Israel, smaller parties can easily fall below the electoral threshold, and elections can be won or lost in the fringes as potential allies vanish from the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).
By playing matchmaker, Netanyahu sought to ensure that neither Smotrich nor Ben-Gvir would fall below the threshold. This was an electoral move driven by a desire for self-preservation, as per most of Netanyahu's calls these days.
Bibi had no love for the duo. Smotrich had called him a coward and, later, in a leaked recording, a "lying son of a liar" for claiming that he had never considered allying with Ra'am, the moderate Palestinian party led by Mansour Abbas.
Ben-Gvir renewed an Israeli far-right tradition of stoking discord at the Haram al-Sharif compound where the third holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa mosque, is located.
Netanyahu fused together two different but complementary personas.
Yet Smotrich and Ben-Gvir were not the modern incarnation of religious Zionism that Israelis had come to expect with Naftali Bennett, a former commandos and hi-tech founder.
Bennett had earlier "modernised" the look and feel of religious Zionism to make it seem more attractive and mainstream. He was successful and became the first prime minister of Israel to wear a kippah (a head cap worn by religious Jewish men).
To Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, Bennett was a traitor whose ascent to power came with the help of the centre-left and even Mansour Abbas. Bennett's pragmatism had a purpose: to end Netanyahu's career.
It didn't work, and in his machinations, Bennett ended up disappointing many of his core constituents, who never understood the decision.
Fed up, disenchanted religious Zionist voters sought comfort in the radical ideas of people like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, lighting their way to government.
Bright future ahead?
As is often the case with extremist outsiders, the hope is that power and responsibility act as an antidote or moderating force.
Years of bashing successive governments for failing to tackle the threat of Palestinian terrorism means there were high expectations.
Yet, as ministers on whose watch hundreds of Hamas fighters crossed into and attacked southern Israel on 7 October, they are vulnerable.
Israelis see them as having presided over one of the worst catastrophes ever to befall the Jewish people and are expected to vote accordingly at the next election.
In recent weeks, Ben-Gvir has been busy making outrageous statements and arguing with much of the Israeli establishment, but he has mostly been sidelined.
Likewise, Smotrich — who called for the Palestinian city of Huwara to be "erased" after a deadly shooting attack — has not proven to be the financial genius his supporters suggested.
In the midst of war, his focus has seemed to be on the preservation of minority interests of religious parties, which has not gone down well with mainstream Israelis.
Some observers believe Smotrich and Ben-Gvir still have a bright future ahead and will ride the Netanyahu train until it stops being useful to them.
Power has a habit of disproving the logic of extreme ideas, forcing either the political disappearance or substantial modification of their defenders. That is what many hope will happen here.
Others think that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir still have a bright future ahead and will ride the Netanyahu train until it stops being useful to them.
Their ideas were not fringe before the security crisis of 7 October and will certainly not be fringe now. Governing has been a painful dose of reality for this pair, but reality is but a minor obstacle for Jewish extremists.
These two know that their voters are, by and large, just as ideological as they are, so will always forgive them for not delivering.
What these voters like about Smotrich and Ben-Gvir is not their ability to shape reality. It is that, in their own ways, they are a shelter against Israel's increasingly complex challenges.
They offer simplistic, even magical solutions, and those solutions never die, even when proved wrong time and time again.