Itamar Ben-Gvir: fiery far-right leader gains traction before Israeli election

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  October 29, 2022

Ben-Gvir, a defender of Jewish extremists, poised to become powerful mainstream force.

Whenever the far-right politician Meir Kahane got up to speak in the Knesset after winning his Kach party’s only ever seat, in 1984, the rest of the plenum would walk out. Even the hardline prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, called the rabbi’s anti-Palestinian movement “negative, dangerous and damaging”. Kach was banned from politics a few years later for inciting racism.

Four decades on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still raging, and Israel’s political sphere is more rightwing than ever before. The country will hold its fifth election in less than four years next week. Kahane’s disciple Itamar Ben-Gvir is on course to become a powerful mainstream force.

As with the last four elections since 2019, the contest is expected to be very close; voters are still split on whether the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, beleaguered by corruption cases, is fit to lead the country.

In negotiations aimed at forming stable coalitions in the past, Netanyahu, as head of the conservative Likud, has been willing to join forces with centrist parties and even Islamists. This time around, the longtime leader says he wants a narrow, ideologically cohesive government to stave off a sixth election. Ben-Gvir is the man who can make it happen.

Two years ago, Ben-Gvir’s far-right Jewish Strength was still a fringe political group, but thanks to a deal between small extremist parties orchestrated by Netanyahu before the 2021 election, Ben-Gvir won a Knesset seat.

Since a short-lived coalition government collapsed this summer, he has steadily gained traction, drawing the attention of the Israeli media with fiery speeches and an energetic campaigning schedule.

He is picking up votes that previously went to the now disbanded Yamina alliance, and he appeals to members of the ultra-Orthodox community and Likud voters frustrated with Israel’s political crisis. Intercommunal violence on the streets of Israel last year, and the inclusion of a Palestinian party in the last government, shocked the rightwing public.

The latest polls predict that Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionist slate could win 13 or 14 seats, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset. If Netanyahu’s bloc succeeds in winning a majority, it will be the most extremist in history, with the goals of overhauling the Israeli judicial system and further entrenching the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Most Israeli politicians and voters at campaign events the Guardian has attended over the past two weeks are tired and it shows: the atmosphere has for the most part been weary and lackluster. A Religious Zionist rally in the working-class town of Sderot, in southern Israel, on Wednesday night was the opposite.

In a packed school gymnasium, the mostly Modern Orthodox crowd – knitted kippahs for men, long skirts for women – skewed young: pop music blasted from a sound system and about 100 young men danced and sang when Ben-Gvir and the party leader, Bezalel Smotrich, entered the hall. Children in the back row shouted “death to terrorists”.

“Every time [Arabs/Palestinians] attack a Jewish car, our people, I run and see what’s happening … We need new rules against terrorists, we need to enable all citizens to protect themselves with guns. We need laws to protect soldiers,” Ben-Gvir said, to cheers from the audience.

“Hamas has threatened me, but I am not afraid,” he added, referring to the Palestinian militant movement. “We are the owners of this land, the owners of this house.”

Young people crowded Ben-Gvir and Smotrich for selfies after the event.

“He’s brave. He says what needs to be said about Arabs [Palestinians], he’s honest,” said 20-year-old Noa, on leave from military service. “I’ve always voted for Netanyahu, but I will vote for Ben-Gvir this time.”

Natan, 21, a yeshiva student, said: “Some of what he says is obviously bullshit. We’re not going to take back Gaza. But if he can do 85% of what he says he wants to do, that’s great.”

Ben-Gvir’s anti-Palestinian views were moulded by growing up during the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising. The son of secular Iraqi Jewish immigrants, he joined the Kach youth movement as a teenager, and became famous in 1995 for threatening the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, three weeks before he was assassinated. The Israel Defence Forces exempted him from military service owing to his far-right activities.

Now 46, Ben-Gvir has built a legal career defending Jewish extremists, and lives in the restive West Bank city of Hebron/Akl-Khalil, a major target of the settler movement. In 2019, before a failed Knesset run, he reportedly removed a picture of the terrorist Baruch Goldstein from his living room in an effort to appear more moderate.

Since winning his Knesset seat, Ben-Gvir has toned down the rhetoric that got him convicted for incitement, but he still advocates for the deportation of what he calls “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of the country. During violent clashes this month in a flashpoint East Jerusalem neighbourhood, he made headlines for drawing a pistol and shouting at police to shoot a group of Palestinian protesters.

According to Dr As’ad Ghanem, a political sciences lecturer at the University of Haifa and co-author of Israel in the Post Oslo Era, Ben-Gvir’s rise is reflective of wide authoritarian political trends around the world. It is also related to the failure of the two-state peace process and a recent intensification of the conflict.

“Until Oslo [the 1990s peace accords], for Israel the main enemy was always outside. Now, because of the Palestinian Authority and the rise of Islamic movements, the threat is seen as internal,” he said.

“For many Jews, it is seen as a life and death issue. They need to open all the fronts: if there’s no option for two states, they must keep the Palestinians under control, and people feel the best way to do that is strong anti-Palestinian politics.”

At the Sderot rally, most of the older attenders the Guardian spoke to were more circumspect about Ben-Gvir than his younger supporters.

Boaz, 52, who works in the town council, said he would vote for the Religious Zionists for the first time next week, not because of Ben-Gvir’s bombastic personal appeal but because he did not see a better alternative.

“There is nowhere else for Jews to go. This is our country and we need to do everything we can to protect it, which is something I don’t think the left understands. I’m from Ethiopia, I could never go back there,” he said.

“I’m not looking for someone who will make promises about the cost of living or jobs or housing,” he said. “I’m looking for a country with a future.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Maria Rashed contributed reporting