Otzma Yehudit: The Good News
Wherever Itamar Ben-Gvir goes, he’s the center of attention, and that’s never been truer than during the last couple weeks. During that time, Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party – and its only current Member of Knesset — managed to re-merge his party with its current faction partner, the Religious Zionism party of Bezalel Smotrich, while at the same time losing the support of two of the three founders of Otzma.
That sounds like a mixed bag, but I actually think it’s all very good, at least from my political viewpoint, but you have to understand some of the background and history that led up to this.
First you have to understand the electoral threshold. In Israel, you need 3.25% of the vote (the equivalent of four seats, a.k.a. mandates) in order to enter the Knesset. Every party lives in fear of this number, because if you don’t make it in, it is as if all of your voters didn’t vote at all; the votes are “lost” or “wasted”. In the last round of elections, Otzma Yehudit made an alliance with Religious Zionism in order to not waste the votes for Otzma, which could not enter the Knesset by itself. According to all the polls, the roles are now reversed and Religious Zionism needs Otzma Yehudit, with OY polling as high as nine seats by itself, and RZ on the cusp of not making it in. That’s a bitter pill for Smotrich to swallow.
Secondly, you need to know that the perception is that Otzma Yehudit is a racist party. In Hebrew, the term is “gezanut”, and is so deliberately ambiguous that I still have no idea what Israelis are talking about. The left will decry “gezanut” against Arabs and illegal African non-Jewish immigrants – which is the complaint against OY – but at the same time disparage Middle Eastern and North African Jews (as singer Shlomo Gronich recently did), Ethiopian Jews and even Ashkenazi chareidi Jews (white, ultra-orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe descent). All of these are covered by the term “gezanut”. Itamar Ben-Gvir is as Sefardi as they come, historically one of the most maligned groups by gezanut, but that won’t come into play in the media, because mostly, the term is just a cudgel with which to beat your opponents.
Complicating the matter of “gezanut” is the fact that the Knesset made a special law to not allow “racist” parties to run for the Knesset. The Supreme Court has interpreted this law to ONLY apply to Jewish parties. Arab parties, and Arabs within Jewish parties (like Ibtisam Mara’ana of Labor), can support Hamas, the PLO, the destruction of Israel and murder of Jews and are still “not racist” according to the Court. The law was made explicitly to outlaw Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party in the ‘80s and was used to ban three Otzma Yehudit founders – Bentzi Gopstein, Baruch Marzel, and Dr. Michael Ben-Ari – in the last election. The latter two – Marzel and Dr. Ben-Ari – are the ones who have now broken with the party over the issue of Ben-Gvir not holding fast enough to Rabbi Kahane’s vision.
Lastly, you have to know that a sizable majority of Israeli Jews lean to the right. In the most recent Knesset, the opposition was made up entirely of right-wing Jewish parties, with the exception of the United Arab List party. In the coalition, Yamina (meaning “to the right”) the New Hope party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, campaigned as right-wing, despite their later actions. All of the left-wing and center-left parties, plus the “right-wing” parties above, plus one Arab party, barely made it to 60 seats to create a coalition that didn’t last.
So Ben-Gvir and the Otzma Yehudit party have a large pool of possible voters, but how is he getting them? What’s making his polling numbers continue to rise? I think it boils down to two things: One is the fact that he’s a lawyer, and a good one at that, and the other is that he connects to the populace, at least the Zionist populace. His job as a lawyer is to persuade those who are not already on his side. In order to persuade, he has to beat his audience over the head, so to speak, with the things that they already believe, and show how he’s just trying to make them live up to those beliefs. This is very different from the three former party leaders mentioned above.
Ben-Gvir sticks to the consensus of the right, often making even the left agree with him. In spite of the fact that he was himself influenced by Rabbi Kahane, and that Otzma Yehudit was founded as an expression of Kahanism, he realizes that the party has stayed small and insignificant as long as it has held dogmatically to its roots. Instead, he has jettisoned Rabbi Kahane’s call to expel all the Arabs, while keeping the rest of his common-sense, but often uncomfortable positions, like the need to face the fact that there are plenty of enemies amongst the Arab citizenry trying to destroy the country and that includes Members of the Knesset. He talks about the need to have security in all parts of the country; that a Jew should be able to live in a home he’s legally bought in eastern Jerusalem or Hebron, or plant a tree in the Negev; that our schools and our governments should not hire terrorists; that one should be able to go anywhere and to carry an Israeli flag while doing it without being attacked and without the police taking it away. If you believe this should be a Jewish country, which is the essence of Zionism, these should not be controversial statements. This is exactly where I am politically, I think it is where a lot of others are, including many voters of Yamina and Likud.
Another aspect of being a lawyer is that he knows where the line is that will get him in trouble and avoids it. Whether he really believes it or not, he immediately chastises anyone who says “Death to the Arabs” or calls to expel all the Arabs in his vicinity. You can see it in many videos, and it’s an almost Pavlovian reaction. “Death to Terrorists”, “Send Tibi to Syria” are fine, and he often chants them himself, because who could argue?
Ben-Gvir has spent every day of his term in office connecting to people. He shows up at almost all of the funerals and shivas of terrorist victims, unlike Bennett. Almost every night is a town hall meeting somewhere in the country, and not just the center. On Fridays, he often tours the shuk in Jerusalem, shaking hands and posing for selfies. At every demonstration and every event, of any kind, he is there. He is the most interviewed Member of the current Knesset, and may be heading toward the most interviewed of all time. He has also expanded the base by bringing on a “traditional” candidate (i.e. a candidate that does not identify as “religious”), Almog Cohen, who was a point of contention with Bezalel Smotrich. As in other democracies, you often hear, “The political parties are all the same.” Ben-Gvir may not fix everything, but no one believes it will be ho-hum, and that excites people.
The most important thing he has done is to reframe all of the conversations. Instead of talking about expelling “Arabs”, he talks about “enemies” and “those who attack soldiers with weapons”. He’s put the media in the position of trying to defend Ayman Odeh, et. al., when he says they “support terror”, because the truth is they do. When someone discusses expelling Arabs, one thinks about the nicest Arab he’s ever met, and who’d want to expel him? When one discusses an enemy, and gives concrete examples, it’s hard to be in favor of keeping him. When he set up his “office” in Shimon Hatzaddik (a.k.a. Sheikh Jarrah), the conversation went from “What is this settler doing in an Arab neighborhood” to “Why are the police allowing the torching of a Jew’s legal home and endangering his baby?”
Baruch Marzel and Dr. Ben-Ari leaving the party and the hard-won, non-ideal merger with Religious Zionism are both symptoms of Otzma Yehudit becoming a real player in Israeli politics. Staying ideologically pure would turn off a lot of voters, including myself, and leave the gap for a real right-wing party that stays true to its voters. While one could worry that having changed this far, Ben-Gvir could sell out completely, but I don’t believe it. All indications are that he has a passion to serve the Jewish people and its state. I believe this is why he was willing to make the concessions he did, at the cost of his own position. If all goes well, the merger may yield a faction of 14 seats, pulling a possible coalition to the right. While Smotrich may be the titular head of that faction, the charisma and work ethic of Itamar Ben-Gvir will make him the real power.