Ben-Gvir’s dream ministry brings Kahane’s vision one step closer

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir sets up a makeshift parliamentary office in the Palestinian neighbourhood Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, February 2022 (Oren Ziv)

Natasha Roth-Rowland

+972 Magazine  /  November 30, 2022

With the portfolio he’s craved, the far-right lawmaker can accelerate Israel’s colonial violence against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.

In February 1990, a little over two years into the First Intifada, the far-right rabbi and politician Meir Kahane told a San Francisco audience that he knew just how to bring the Palestinian uprising to a speedy end. The American-born leader of the Kach party, which was banned from running in the Israeli elections about 18 months prior due to its racist platform, told the crowd that the first step would be to appoint him as Israel’s defense minister for a single week. He would start out, Kahane continued, by banning all journalists from the West Bank, before telling Israeli troops they had “two days to do whatever you need to do.” And with that, the rabbi concluded, the intifada would be over.

This was not the first time that Kahane had shared his violent fantasies about becoming the minister in charge of the Israeli army. Five years earlier, he told a crowd of supporters in Haifa that, if he were appointed to that role, Palestinians would “come to me, bow to me, lick my feet, and I will be merciful and will allow them to leave. Whoever does not leave will be slaughtered.”

Kahane was assassinated before he could see his dream come true. But Itamar Ben-Gvir — his ideological descendant, a former Kach activist, and the most politically successful Kahanist in the movement’s history — is on the brink of achieving the next best thing.

The prospect of Ben-Gvir being awarded a key government ministry had been hovering well before this month’s elections, with polls making clear that he was the driving force behind the surging popularity of the far-right Religious Zionism party, headed by Bezalel Smotrich, which ran on a joint slate with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and the anti-LGBTQ Noam party (the three reverted to separate Knesset factions following the election). Up until recently, and especially in the wake of Religious Zionism’s electoral success — unprecedented for a Kahanist slate — Ben-Gvir looked set to be given the public security ministry, as per his wishes.

Amid tough coalition negotiations with his incoming coalition partners, however, Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly not only given the Otzma Yehudit leader the portfolio he craved, but also expanded its oversight. Provided nothing derails the ongoing negotiations, Ben Gvir will be appointed as Israel’s first “minister of national security,” overseeing police forces both within the Green Line and in the occupied territories — most notably the Border Police — as well as having much greater control over the police than any of his predecessors.

Consolidating supremacy

 That Ben-Gvir has been handed such an impactful role in the new government is, above all, confirmation of the extraordinary political power he has accumulated in a relatively short space of time, as well as the equally rapid journey Kahanism has made from the electoral margins to producing the third-largest vote-getter in the previous elections. Netanyahu handsomely supported both Ben-Gvir and his party on this journey, repeatedly orchestrating political mergers between the far-right parties over the repeated election cycles of the last few years, in order to ensure that no votes for the right-wing bloc went to waste.

Otzma Yehudit, for its part, has drawn in supporters in reaction to the growing political power and consciousness of Palestinian citizens, which — from the formation of the Joint List in 2015 to the inclusion of the Islamist Ra’am party in the Bennett-Lapid government — is seen as posing a direct threat to the Jewish supremacy that is baked into Israel’s political system. And finally, since becoming an opposition MK last year, Ben-Gvir has enjoyed an unblinking media spotlight, which he successfully exploited during the chaos and violence of May 2021 — a harrowing episode that, in itself, helped Otzma Yehudit expand its base.

Yet Ben-Gvir’s reported appointment is also reflective of the ongoing dissolution, at least as far as the Israeli government is concerned, of the Green Line: both in how the security logic and mechanisms of the occupation continue to seep over from the West Bank, and in how Israel has painstakingly dismantled the political and legal distinctions between the territories under its control.

The resulting one-state reality has created parallel processes by which the occupied territories have come to be understood as an established part of Israel “proper,” while the area within the Green Line is increasingly seen as a restive territory in need of active subjugation. Under these conditions, Ben-Gvir’s new mandate is not only to help maintain the ongoing colonization of the West Bank and imprisonment of Gaza, but also to help “re-colonize” Israel itself.

The very naming of Ben-Gvir’s trans-Green Line authority as “national security” is also an act of rhetorical annexation — one that would be reinforced should Smotrich get his wish for West Bank settlements to be removed from the jurisdiction of the Civil Administration, the bureaucratic arm of the military government in the occupied territories, and come under “regular” government control, which even right-wing media outlets have labeled as a form of annexation.

The next stage of Israeli repression

 Above all else, however, Ben-Gvir’s elevation represents a victory for violence. Israel’s incoming national security minister is, in both word and deed, a violent man who first found the spotlight as an activist with the youth wing of a fascist movement during the prelude to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. He has been indicted on numerous charges relating to violence, and convicted of inciting to racism and supporting a terrorist organization. He fashioned a high-profile legal career defending Jewish terrorists, and — until early 2020 — had a portrait of a mass murderer, whom he deemed a “hero,” adorning his living room wall.

Ben-Gvir has reveled in descending on focal points of Palestinian oppression, such as when he set up a parliamentary “office” in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah while Palestinian families faced imminent forced displacement by settlers, inciting mass tensions in the run-up to an 11-day war and horrific episodes of intercommunal violence within Israel’s so-called “mixed cities” during May 2021. He has, in recent months, twice been caught on camera brandishing a gun while arguing with Palestinians; on the second occasion, also in Sheikh Jarrah, he repeatedly told police officers around him to shoot Palestinians if they throw stones.

None of this is to mention the violence of Ben-Gvir’s vision for the country, whose accumulated police forces he is poised to take charge of. Apparently unsatisfied by the gruesome toll exacted on Palestinians under the previous government, he wants to make security forces’ open-fire regulations even more permissive — to ensure, in other words, more Shireen Abu Aklehs, more Amar Shafiq Abu Afifas, more Iyad al-Hallaqs, more Razan al-Najjars, and more Nadeem Nawaras.

The minister-to-be additionally wants to introduce the death penalty for (non-Jewish) “terrorists” — or at least the judicial version, given Israel’s de facto existing practice of extrajudicial killings — and to expel “disloyal” Palestinian citizens from the country, a category so sweeping in the Kahanist imaginary that it represents simply a minor technical adjustment to Kach’s original platform, which called to remove Palestinians tout court.

On top of this, he wants to see even greater leniency for Israeli security forces who employ violence against “enemies” — whether Palestinians or left-wing Jews. His most recent intervention on this front came earlier this week, when he questioned the suspension of two soldiers who assaulted and cursed at left-wing Israeli Jews in Hebron — with one of the soldiers gloating that “Ben-Gvir is going to bring order to this place” — and suggested that the troops had been “provoked.”

Ben-Gvir is no innovator on this front, of course, but his violence is undoubtedly part of the attraction for many of his supporters. Violence — whether interpersonal, structural, or rhetorical — has always been the engine oil of the Israeli state. It is the method that ensures its racial and religious domination, its ability to wage a long-term war of demographic engineering, and its liberty to expel, demolish, incarcerate, and execute.

But as with any colonial project, the longer it continues, the broader and more conspicuous its violence must become. Set on this trajectory, Ben-Gvir is not the aberration so many of his critics desperately want him to be, but another waypoint in the evolution of Israel’s efforts to maintain, and expand, Jewish supremacy at any cost. The Nakba happened almost three-quarters of a century ago; the military occupation is 55 years old; and Gaza has been besieged for 15 years. All the while, Palestinian citizens are being increasingly treated as an internal “enemy” that demands surveillance and repression on a par with that visited on Palestinians in the territories.

It was precisely this legacy of violence that Kahane sought to accelerate, and on which he dreamed of leaving his mark. And today, there are few better candidates than Kahane’s disciple — soon to be in charge of a broad swath of the security apparatus between the river and the sea — to incite and legislate the next stage of Israeli repression. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Natasha Roth-Rowland is an editor and writer at +972 Magazine, and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Virginia; her research and writing focus on the Jewish far-right in Israel-Palestine and the United States