Ben Gvir is a pyromaniac, but it’s Netanyahu who has given him the matches

The PM could have simply told the far-right leader that his Temple Mount visit was counterproductive to Israel’s interests. Here’s why he didn’t

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the government is sworn in at the Knesset, December 29, 2022 (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the government is sworn in at the Knesset, December 29, 2022 (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Itamar Ben Gvir has always been a provocateur and a pyromaniac. He has spent decades stirring trouble — from brandishing the hood ornament he stole off of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac in 1995 to brandishing his pistol during a confrontation with Arabs in East Jerusalem three months ago, with innumerable acts of rabble-rousing, dozens of indictments, and several convictions for incitement and racism-related offenses in the quarter-century in between.

Now, though, thanks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he’s a leading figure in the government of Israel, a member of its key decision-making security cabinet, and the minister with unprecedented power over the nation’s police force.

On Tuesday, this dangerous man went for a 13-minute walk on the Temple Mount, ostensibly to decry what he calls the “racism” that applies there — whereby Jews are second-class citizens at the holiest place in our faith.

There is an argument to be made for permitting wider access and the right to pray for Jews at the site of the biblical Temples. In part, this argument charges that defense minister Moshe Dayan, in electing not to fully realize Israel’s sovereignty over the Mount immediately after its breathtaking capture in the 1967 war, helped facilitate the resonant Palestinian lie that the Jews have no connection to our ancient homeland — for surely, if the Temple Mount was historically ours, religiously ours, we would not have handed it back to them.

Dayan self-evidently thought otherwise. Anxious to avoid a full-on confrontation with the entire Muslim world, and utilizing the halachic argument that Jews should not set foot on the Mount for fear of defiling the sacred ground where the Temple and its Holy of Holies once stood, he allowed Jordan’s Muslim Waqf to continue to administer the compound’s holy places.

Netanyahu has always wisely indicated that he shares Dayan’s assessment. In a speech in March 2020, for instance, he warned that allowing Jewish prayer on Temple Mount, as Ben Gvir has long demanded, would “set the Middle East alight… and stir up millions of Muslims against us.”

Ben Gvir’s visit, then — and his characteristically arrogant and ambivalent Channel 12 television interview hours later, in which he declined to say whether he would now try to push Netanyahu, from his vaunted ministerial position, into allowing Jewish prayer — was not conducted within the context of responsible governance. It was not part of a strategic drive orchestrated by the prime minister, after careful consideration at the coalition table.

It was, rather, a characteristic act of provocation and potential pyromania.

And yet it was, nonetheless, sanctioned by Netanyahu.

Whose hands on the wheel?

The prime minister’s Likud party has energetically stressed, since the visit, that Ben Gvir’s walkabout does not change the status quo on the Mount. Jews are allowed to visit, and that’s all Ben Gvir did, the party has noted; he didn’t pray there. Former police ministers have visited in the past, the party has further noted.

But this stance is disingenuous. Ben Gvir is no ordinary police minister. He’s a red rag agitator who long called, for example, to expel Israel’s Arab citizens, before refining that demand to the mere expulsion of those Arabs deemed “disloyal.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023 (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

Netanyahu, needless to say, could have told him not to go. Because, as he would have known it would, Ben Gvir’s visit has sparked an international furor with consequences directly impacting Netanyahu’s own priorities for his new government.

At a stroke, it has complicated Israel’s relations with its fresh Abraham Accord allies — the ties that Netanyahu is so rightly proud to have established — and its vital longtime peace partners Egypt and Jordan, all of whom protested Ben Gvir’s visit.

It has apparently led to the postponement of Netanyahu’s long-delayed first visit to the United Arab Emirates, which had been set for next week.

It elicited condemnation, too, from, Saudi Arabia, the most sought-after potential new peace partner for Israel, whose successful cultivation Netanyahu has described as a potential “quantum leap.”

And it has strained Israel’s relations with its key ally, the United States, precisely as Netanyahu seeks to keep the Americans in his corner as he grapples with what he set as his first mission in the speech last Thursday in which he presented his government for Knesset approval — stopping Iran’s relentless march to the nuclear weapons.

So why didn’t Netanyahu tell Ben Gvir not to go to the Mount — tell him that it was not well-timed and ran counter to wider Israeli interests?

The answer, the inadequate, unsatisfactory two-part answer, is the same as the one to the question of why Netanyahu appointed Ben Gvir in the first place, after correctly declaring less than two years ago that Ben Gvir was “not fit” to sit in government: Having alienated all other potential allies, Netanyahu had no route back to power except with the support of Ben Gvir, the rest of the far-right and the ultra-Orthodox parties. And he cannot afford to lose their support, especially if he hopes to extricate himself from his criminal trial.

Thus Itamar Ben Gvir gets to stir up the Arab world and the international community, to the delight of Israel’s enemies. And Netanyahu, who vowed just last month in a US interview that he would have “two hands on the wheel” of his coalition, no matter its other constituents and their radical agendas, proves that he dare not hold them back.

‘Safeguarding Israeli democracy’

With far fewer headlines and international resonance, but with immense significance for Israel’s future well-being, Netanyahu has also now appointed Yariv Levin as his justice minister. Likud ally Levin has long formulated plans to neuter the High Court — both by stacking it with justices considered more palatable to the political right, and by curtailing its capacity to strike down discriminatory and undemocratic laws and government decisions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of the Interior and Health Aryeh Deri (left), and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (right) during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This process of what is euphemistically called “restoring the proper balance between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary” in the government guidelines — and defined as a priority in the various parties’ coalition agreements — could well get underway in earnest within days, since the High Court on Thursday will hear petitions against the appointment of Aryeh Deri as interior minister, health minister and deputy prime minister.

Given the recidivist Deri’s conviction for tax offenses and the plea bargain he negotiated less than a year ago on the false basis, accepted by Jerusalem’s Magistrate’s Court, that he would henceforth be “distanced from the public sphere,” this is an appointment that the attorney general considers legally “unreasonable,” and thus indefensible. The expanded 11-justice panel that will be hearing the petitions may well conclude that she is correct, putting court and coalition into immediate collision.

Netanyahu in the past was a declared supporter and upholder of the top court’s independence and the sensitive separation of powers — well aware that without the justices to constrain a powerful governing coalition, Israel has no other brakes on the excesses of the political majority, no other means to defend against a descent into authoritarianism.

Now, though, Netanyahu evidently feels he needs to paralyze the court, for it could be relied upon to untenably strike down his partners’ various planned discriminatory and undemocratic legislative initiatives — including a further broadened exemption for the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community from national service, the legalization of settlements built on private Palestinian land, potential literal discrimination in the shape of a law that would enable service providers to refuse service on the grounds of religious belief. And, potentially, laws and amendments, applied retroactively, to cancel the criminal charges against Netanyahu and/or give a serving prime minister immunity from prosecution.

Oh, what have we done?

In just these last few days, then, Netanyahu, who promised to rein in the extremists in his coalition, gave the pyromaniacal Itamar Ben Gvir the matches and allowed him to venture onto the ultra-combustibleTemple Mount.

And Netanyahu, the man who also promised those recent American interviewers that he was going to “safeguard Israeli democracy,” installed a justice minister with a mission to destroy it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (2R) and other officials and ministers at the new coalition’s first full cabinet meeting on January 3, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday night, Israel’s Channel 13 published its first opinion poll since Netanyahu swore in his government last Thursday. According to its findings, which should be taken no more seriously than those of Israel’s other snapshot public opinion surveys down the years, the Netanyahu-led bloc would lose its majority were elections held today, having apparently discomfited at least a small swath of its erstwhile supporters.

A second survey, published Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute, seemed to confirm the trend. It found that a majority of Israelis believe Netanyahu mishandled the coalition negotiations by making excessive concessions to his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies.

That ship, voters and lovers of Israel, has sailed.

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