Will Israel face Democratic pushback over racist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir ?

Michael F. Brown

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 14, 2022

Is there finally a limit to what right-wing, pro-Israel Democrats will tolerate from the Israeli government?

We may be about to find out.

Two Democrats raised concerns about Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, even before he pulled a gun Thursday evening and tweeted for Israeli forces to “kick the crap out of the enemy” in Israeli-occupied Sheikh Jarrah.

While in Sheikh Jarrah, he also shouted, “If they throw stones, shoot them.”

But don’t expect that Democrats, or the two speaking against Ben-Gvir, will move away from staunch support for Israeli apartheid. Ben-Gvir, a supporter of the racist Meir Kahane, could join a potential governing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, but Democrats won’t touch military aid to Israel.

And, if a cabinet position does come to pass for Ben-Gvir, mainstream Democrats will not undercut the stability of the US-Israel relationship. For years they have funded apartheid, abetted Israel’s settlement expansion and accepted excuses for maintaining the discriminatory status quo. Most Democrats won’t change now. Republicans certainly won’t.

Axios reported that in a recent meeting with Netanyahu, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey warned the former prime minister that the inclusion of right-wing extremists could damage bilateral US-Israel relations. One of the two sources told Axios that “people who were in the room saw how pissed off Bibi got.”

Menendez, a strong supporter of Israel who denies it’s an apartheid state, and fails to recognize that Ben-Gvir is merely the tip of the apartheid iceberg, reportedly did not back down. He was there as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation led by Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina.

Ben-Gvir pushed back after the report of Menendez’s stance emerged.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that Senator Menendez has aimed incorrect and mistaken criticisms at the millions of Israelis who will soon vote in favor of a center-right government and me personally.”

Calling Menendez, who chairs the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, “a true friend of Israel and a champion of the US-Israel relationship,” Ben-Gvir suggested that the senator had been incorrectly informed.

He added, “Those who are enemies of a strong Israel seek to besmirch me by calling me and my party racist. But the truth is that we’re anti-racist. We are fighting against the racist anti-Semitism fomenting within the boundaries of our homeland.”

Ben-Gvir, like Netanyahu, is clearly a demagogue with no substantive interest in reversing his anti-Palestinian racism.

Likewise, Netanyahu thrives on whataboutism and blaming others while embracing the virulent racism and expansionism gripping much of the Israeli electorate. Ben-Gvir cited the former prime minister in his self-defense.

A statement from Ben-Gvir earlier this month read, “In a press conference this week, Benjamin Netanyahu put the critique against me in proportion: ‘I would have expected [the Americans] to warn us of a government that depends on the Muslim Brotherhood [i.e. the Islamist Ra’am party] who support terrorism.’”

Pro-Israel Democrat Brad Sherman, a right winger on Israel who is nonetheless part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, backed Menendez’s stance. Yet in doing so, he reiterated his support for the anti-Palestinianism of Israel as an ethno-nationalist state.

“I urge Israeli political leaders from all sides of the political spectrum to ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir whose outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state.”

Organizations such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee have remained conspicuously silent during this election campaign after voicing cautious concern in 2019. Those mild rebukes, however, failed to name Netanyahu for his part in bringing Ben-Gvir closer to political power.

Otzma Yehudit, Ben-Gvir’s party, is now taking a page from far-right election deniers in the US by getting Kahanists and other anti-Palestinian racists credentialed to monitor Palestinian polling stations.

Netanyahu griped following the 2019 elections that there had been fraud in Palestinian polling stations, but only two cases were found according to Haaretz – and those favored Likud and the Shas party.

Kingmaker ?

Even as he does his utmost to aggravate the oppressive conditions in occupied East Jerusalem, Ben-Gvir is hoping to play kingmaker for Netanyahu following the 1 November Israeli election.

Heading a new generation of Israeli right wingers, Ben-Gvir claims to have moderated his anti-Palestinian views. Only the naive could believe him.

In late August he touted the “wisdom of crowds.”

Ben-Gvir made the statement as he rejoiced in an unscientific online poll indicating that “64 percent of Israelis approve of” his bill to deport citizens disloyal to the state. This figure rises to 80 percent among “supporters of the right-leaning Netanyahu bloc.”

Among the supposedly center and center-left bloc headed by Yair Lapid, 47 percent agreed.

Disloyalty in Ben-Gvir’s book could mean preferring that Israel be “a state of all its citizens” rather than “a Jewish and democratic state,” a notion discriminating against Palestinians.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the exact wording of the poll question was “unclear.”

Mob rule in Israel – like its standard apartheid rule – has grim implications for Palestinians.

We have seen mob violence time and time again from the Israeli far right, angry crowds and “security” forces.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has lamented when Palestinians vote in large numbers, is openly promoting the alliance between Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party – as well as with the smaller anti-LGBT and anti-Reform Judaism Noam party – as a means to securing himself 61 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Smotrich once argued that Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, then a child, should have been shot in the knee for slapping and kicking occupation soldiers on her property.

“In my opinion, she should have gotten a bullet, at least in the kneecap.” He added, “That would have put her under house arrest for the rest of her life.”

Ben-Gvir called her a “little terrorist” following the incident. Naftali Bennett, favored by Democrats, said Tamimi, her mother and a cousin “should finish their lives in prison” for defending their land.

The Noam party openly rejects Israel becoming a “state of all its citizens” – like many other Israeli parties – and promotes “Jewish identity above all.”

Together, the united parties could win 12-14 seats in the Knesset as part of the Religious Zionism list. A tally of 61 seats for Netanyahu’s anticipated coalition is not at all certain as recent polling indicates those parties may reach just 59 seats.

The alliance helps ensure that the far right will not waste votes to smaller political parties not crossing the threshold necessary to join the Knesset. And it unites three virulently anti-Palestinian parties on behalf of Netanyahu and his possible governing coalition.

Following the reunification of Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit in August, Netanyahu stated, “Unity is presently needed to ensure the victory of the national camp and the formation of a stable, national government for the next four years.” Netanyahu appears to be routinely coordinating campaigns and media strategy with Ben-Gvir.

This is the third time Netanyahu has backed Ben-Gvir. The first time, Netanyahu’s backing was compared to a US president cutting a deal with the racist David Duke of Ku Klux Klan infamy.

Ben-Gvir’s inclusion within Israeli apartheid politics, however, is hardly an outlier event. It puts a more openly racist face on everyday Israeli discrimination readily accepted by governments in Europe and the US.

Menendez and Sherman fail to acknowledge this underlying apartheid reality as do many Democrats who claim to be progressives, but last month showcased their anti-Palestinianism with racist attacks on Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.

Many of these Democrats loved the “diverse” coalition put together by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett because they largely avoided the worst excesses of violent rhetoric, while still engaging in deadly attacks on Palestinians.

An Israeli government of racists and extremists may trouble Democrats, but not sufficiently that they will cut military aid to the apartheid state. After all, racist Israeli leaders promoting and excusing apartheid have been backed by Democrats and Republicans alike for decades.

Extremism to ‘moderation’

Ben-Gvir hopes to mainstream himself while giving up only a photo on his living room wall of Baruch Goldstein, the 1994 murderer of 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.

In a recent interview with Israel’s Channel 13, the newly “moderate” Ben-Gvir claimed, “I am not Rabbi Kahane, I swear. I wouldn’t put forward bills for separate beaches, and I am not for generalizing all Arabs.”

Speaking to high school students in the last few weeks, Ben-Gvir said, “It’s true, at the age of 17 I said that Dr. Goldstein was a hero. Today, I am 46, a few years have passed since then, I’ve had children, became a lawyer. I don’t think that Dr. Goldstein is a hero. I don’t think we should kill Arabs, I don’t think we need to deport Arabs.”

Elsewhere in the speech, however, Ben-Gvir reportedly stated, “I have no problem with Arabs as Arab, I don’t advocate death to Arabs, God forbid, or expelling all the Arabs.”

Note his use of the word “all.” Expelling some or many Palestinians would be quite all right by Ben-Gvir.

He also claimed, “Anyone who’s loyal, who wants to live here, ahlan wa sahlan [welcome]. But I do have a problem with anyone who throws Molotov cocktails at us.”

Then, according to Haaretz, he mentioned the members of the Joint List he would expel.

His political party has also put up a racist billboard calling to banish “enemies” such as Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh as well as senior members Ahmad Tibi and Ofer Cassif. Previously, Ben-Gvir has called Tibi a “terrorist.”

The anti-Palestinian animus of Ben-Gvir’s party is not new, but the targeting of Cassif, who is Jewish, shows its hate can also target those Jews who work with Palestinians against the Israeli occupation and for some approximation of equality.

The contention over the billboard comes as Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has revoked the Jerusalem residency permits of seven Palestinian family members of a man who drove a vehicle into a group of Israeli soldiers in 2017, killing four. The seven face deportation – a form of ethnic cleansing – if they do not leave the country, a possibility that remains for 10 more family members.

Times of Israel article does not define the borders of the country and whether or not the family members will be forced out of Jerusalem and into areas of the West Bank that Israel claims are controlled by the Palestinian Authority or into Gaza or farther afield.

The possible expulsion has been delayed as of several days after Shaked’s 6 October deadline.


There is some awareness that Ben-Gvir’s newfound moderation is a trick.

Channel 13 cited Almog Cohen, number seven on the joint slate, as telling supporters that Ben-Gvir’s more restrained positions on Palestinians were a “Trojan horse” intended to get him into the Knesset without the Israeli high court disqualifying the party on account of racism.

Caught on hidden camera, Cohen said that “when [ultranationalist Baruch Marzel] stands next to Itamar and says ‘We should transfer all the Arabs,’ then he disqualifies Itamar.”

He added, “Whoever doesn’t use tricks, loses,” as clear an indication as any that Ben-Gvir’s recent relative moderation isn’t real.

As for Cohen, social media records indicate that he has previously called for soldiers and police officers to kill rather than arrest Palestinians, and “to wash the streets of Gaza with blood.”

Old video

Video emerged last year of Ben-Gvir in 1995, just one year after the Ibrahimi mosque massacre, declaring of Goldstein, “He is my hero.” He also wore a sign stating, “Blessed is the man who opens fire.”

Ben-Gvir can be seen below dressed as Goldstein for Purim and making the depraved comment about Goldstein being his “hero.”

The Kahane supporter was previously convicted in 2007 in an Israeli court of supporting a terror organization and inciting racism.

Ben-Gvir believes that a cabinet position awaits him should Netanyahu once again secure the position of prime minister.

Though some continue to claim that Ben-Gvir has moderated his positions over the years, he remains imbued with both fanaticism and narcissism. “Over the last year I’ve been on a mission to save Israel,” Ben-Gvir recently told journalists.

“Millions of citizens are waiting for a real right-wing government. The time has come to give them one.”

Polls indicate that Religious Zionism could potentially be the third largest party in the Knesset.

Democrats and Republicans alike can be expected to keep the military aid to Israel flowing no matter what transpires on 1 November. All outcomes point to the continuation of apartheid for Palestinians.

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist