Itamar Ben-Gvir | The rabble-rouser

The ultra-orthodox rightwing politician, who was once convicted for incitement of racism, has emerged as a critical partner of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition

November 20, 2022 12:52 am | Updated 05:58 pm IST

In 1995, he stole the Cadillac emblem from the car of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Labour leader who signed the Oslo Accord with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat two years earlier. “We got to his car,” the 19-year-old Itamar Ben-Gvir said before the camera. “We’ll get to him, too.” A few weeks later, Rabin, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Shimon Peres, who would succeed Rabin, called for early elections, seeking a fresh mandate for peace. But Peres would suffer a surprise defeat in the elections at the hands of a young, rightwing Likud leader — Benjamin Netanyahu under whose watch the Oslo process would collapse. Now, when Mr. Netanyahu returns to power after a brief spell in the opposition, his most important political ally is the 46-year-old Ben-Gvir.

Until recently, Mr. Ben-Gvir was seen as a Palestinian-hating, far-right fringe element in Israeli politics. In the March 2020 election, his Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party polled only 20,000 votes nationwide, or 0.42%. (In Israel’s proportional representation system, the threshold to enter the Knesset is 3.25%.) But in the March 2021 election, Mr. Ben-Gvir joined hands with the National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich to form the Religious Zionist party. It was Mr. Netanyahu’s idea. The Likud leader wanted the rightwing parties to come together and contest the polls.

The Religious Zionism won 5.1% of the total votes and got 6 seats in the Knesset, including Mr. Ben-Gvir’s. In this year’s election, the Religious Zionism doubled the vote share to 10.83% and secured 14 seats, to become the third largest bloc in the Knesset, after Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud (32) and Yair Lapid’s centre-right Yesh Atid (24). As a critical coalition partner, Mr. Ben-Gvir is now in a position to demand key portfolios in the government and can influence its legislative agenda.

‘State of Ayatollahs’

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s rise has already led to widespread concerns about the incoming government both inside and outside Israel. Israeli President Isaac Herzog was caught on the mic saying “the entire world” is concerned about Mr. Ben-Gvir’s entry into government. Avigdor Liberman, the secular rightwing leader and one-time ally of Mr. Netanyahu, says the new coalition wants to turn Israel into a “state of the ayatollahs”.

Their concerns are not entirely baseless as Mr. Ben-Gvir has a controversial past (and present). Naftali Bennett, the former rightwing Prime Minister, once refused to run in the same list as Mr. Ben-Gvir, because he had a picture hanging in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, the American-Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims in Hebron in 1994.

Mr. Ben-Gvir was once associated with Rabbi Meir Kahane’s racist Kach Movement, which stands officially banned in Israel. When he turned 18, the Israeli Defence Forces exempted him from the mandatory military training because his radical views were seen to be too risky. In 2007, he was convicted for incitement of racism and links to a terrorist group (Kach). After entering politics, he said the Arab citizens who are not loyal to the state of Israel must be “expelled”. He also wanted the police to be given powers to shoot Palestinian stone pelters. He further said he would set up a government ministry to encourage the emigration of Arabs from Israel.

Despite his extreme views (or in spite of), Mr. Ben-Gvir has managed to achieve what the far-right blocs he had once been associated with couldn’t—mainstream the explicitly anti-Arab politics. He wants the new government to legalise all Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank and reform Israel’s judicial system, giving more powers to Parliament. With a clear majority between Likud and other rightwing parties, Mr. Netanyahu’s government could change the face of Israel for goodin the coming four years.

“Usually in the Likud coalitions, there would be a centrist or secular party that would balance the governmental agenda. But if you look at the current coalition (Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas and Religious Zionism), Likud is the most leftwing party,” a foreign journalist based in Israel recently told The Hindu in Jerusalem. “That’s how Israel has changed. Ben-Gvir is the clearest manifestation of this change.”

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