Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party, demanded the public security ministry in Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet and got it.
Yesterday, slightly more than three weeks after Israel’s fifth election in a little more than three years, Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Otzma Yehudit announced that Ben-Gvir would be the national security minister in the incoming government, the most right-wing in Israeli history.
By the terms of the agreement, he will have oversight of the national police inside Israel and the Border Police in the occupied West Bank.
Looking forward to his appointment, Ben-Gvir told reporters, “Millions of citizens are waiting for a real right-wing government. The time has come to give them one.”
The rise of Ben-Gvir is a reflection of Israel’s rightward shift since the 1967 Six Day War. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, 62 percent of Israelis regard themselves as right-wingers today.
The possibility that Ben-Gvir would be given a cabinet position prompted a backlash from Israel’s supporters in the United States.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, likened it to a scenario whereby David Duke, an antisemitic propagandist in the United States, would be named attorney-general. Describing Ben-Gvir as a politician who has made “a career out of hatred and encouraging violence,” Jacobs said the majority of American Jews would “find it unimaginable that someone like (him) would be the face and voice of modern Israel.”
“Honestly, it’s a scary thought,” he added.
Raising “concerns” about him, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, told Netanyahu on the eve of the last election that his expedient partnership with Ben-Gvir, who has twice been convicted of incitement in Israeli courts, could erode support for Israel in the U.S.
Netanyahu and his confident, Miki Zohar, were less than impressed by Menendez’s warning.
Netanyahu, who once said Ben-Gvir would be unfit to be a minister, countered that he could “certainly” be a minister in his forthcoming government and declared he would not “bow” his head to U.S. pressure: “We are a democracy and we will decide who will be in the next government.”
Zohar said, “Yes, Ben-Gvir is someone very militant and yes, sometimes a little provocative, but he is someone who cares about Israel.”
Three months ago, Netanyahu personally brokered a merger agreement between Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party to ensure they ran together in the election. If they had not joined forces, Netanyahu feared, they almost certainly would have fallen short of winning enough seats in the Knesset and thereby deprived him of a critical source of support to form a stable government.
Netanyahu’s calculation was exactly right.
Ben-Gvir and Smotrich won a total of 14 seats, enabling Netanyahu’s alliance of right-wing nationalist and religious parties to amass a comfortable majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament and thus depose the caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party.
A disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defence League, Ben-Gvir, now 46, was raised in a traditional Sephardi family in Jerusalem.
Tellingly enough, Ben-Gvir was not drafted for military duty due to his extremist activities.
As a youth, he studied at a yeshiva founded by Kahane and was an ardent supporter of Kahane, whose Kach Party called for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs and a ban on intermarriages between Jews and Arabs.
Widely regraded as a racist, Kahane was elected to the Knesset in 1984. Barred from running for reelection in 1988, Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian Arab in New York City two years later.
A populist demagogue and a rabble rouser who taps into the fears of Israeli Jews, Ben-Gvir considers Kahane his “hero” and has called him “righteous and holy.”
In recent years, he has distanced himself from Kahane’s belief that all Israeli Arabs should be expelled. He currently believes that the expulsion order should be applied only to Arab citizens who engage in violence against Israel and Arab parliamentarians who, he claims, undermine the state.
“I have no problems with Arabs,” he has said. “I don’t advocate death to Arabs, God forbid. Anyone who’s loyal, who wants to live here, is welcome. But I do have a problem with anyone who throws Molotov cocktails at us.”
Ben-Gvir has high regard for Baruch Goldstein, the U.S.-born physician and West Bank settler who killed 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in the winter of 1994. Until recently, Ben-Gvir kept a photograph of Goldstein on a wall of his home in a West Bank settlement near Hebron.
By all accounts, Ben-Gvir was also radicalized by his opposition to the 1993 and 1995 Oslo accords, which were signed during the premiership of Yitzhak Rabin. Prior to Rabin’s assassination, Ben-Gvir gained national notoriety when he broke a hood ornament of the prime minister’s car. “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too,” he boasted on the eve of Rabin’s murder.
Before entering politics, Ben-Gvir — a lawyer whose supporters are largely Orthodox Jews and West Bank settlers — defended radical Jewish settlers.
He has publicly quarrelled with Arab Knesset members, having denounced one of them, Ahmed Tibi, as a “terrorist.”
During last year’s cross-border Gaza war, he visited Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem in a show of force and set up a makeshift office in the Sheik Jarrah district where Jewish settlers are attempting to expel Palestinians from their homes. On one occasion, he drew his pistol on Arab security guards during an altercation over a parking space.
In addition, Ben-Gvir has urged Israel to annex the West Bank and to exercise full sovereignty over the Temple Mount complex in East Jerusalem.
With Israel experiencing a new wave of terrorism in the past six months which has claimed the lives of 25 Israelis and foreign nationals, Ben-Gvir has accused the outgoing defence and public security ministers, Benny Gantz and Omer Bar Lev, of “falling asleep” on the job. Several weeks ago, Bar Lev branded Ben-Gvir as “a draft-dodging cowardly thug.”
Ben Gvir, who will be responsible for keeping the peace at the Temple Mount, has laid out a plan to combat terrorism.
He would double the number of police. He would propose legislation granting police and soldiers immunity from criminal prosecution while on duty. He would allow them to use live fire at rioters throwing stones and petrol bombs. He would impose the death penalty on terrorists and make prison conditions harder for convicted terrorists. He would enact legislation to expel terrorists and their supporters from Israel.
It remains to be seen whether Ben-Gvir’s hardline approach will ameliorate the current situation.