Ben Gvir party members caught admitting moderated extremism is a pre-election feint

Almog Cohen says Otzma Yehudit chair’s change in tone has aided faction’s recent successes, compares his strategy to ‘a trojan horse’ with which to enter parliament

Religious Zionism candidate Almog Cohen caught on hidden camera speaking to supporters. (Channel 13 screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)
Religious Zionism candidate Almog Cohen caught on hidden camera speaking to supporters. (Channel 13 screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

A Knesset candidate for the far-right Otzma Yehudit party has been caught on hidden camera saying his party’s recent moderation of its extremist positions is a “trick” in order to enter the Knesset, implying members actually hold far more extreme ideologies.

Otzma Yehudit is running with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism in the November 1 elections, polling at some 12 projected seats.

In a Channel 13 report, Almog Cohen, number seven on the joint slate, was seen assuring supporters that Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben Gvir’s somewhat toned-down positions on Arabs were a “trojan horse” meant to get him into parliament while preventing the High Court of Justice from disqualifying party members.

Ben Gvir has in recent months sought to frame his party as having no quarrel with Arabs in general, only those he deems disloyal to the state. In one video that made headlines over the summer, Ben Gvir was seen reprimanding a supporter who chanted the well-worn extremist right refrain “Death to Arabs,” telling him he must only say “Death to terrorists.”

Last month, ultranationalist activist Baruch Marzel complained that the party no longer met its “ideological need.”

Under Article 7A of the Basic Law: The Knesset, “incitement to racism” is one of three actions that can disqualify a candidate from running for the Knesset.

Cohen complained that Marzel’s past public comments were a possible liability to Ben Gvir, after the High Court disqualified Marzel from running in the September 2019 Knesset elections.

“When [Marzel] stands next to Itamar and says ‘We should transfer all the Arabs,’ then he disqualifies Itamar,” Cohen explained to an activist, adding: “Whoever doesn’t use tricks, loses,” implying Ben Gvir had not truly reformed.

“Itamar is smart, he has already changed, look at the peak today. Before today, who would think we would bring 100-150 people here?” Cohen said, referencing a nearby gathering of supporters.

In response to the Channel 13 report, Cohen said: “I understand that the extreme left and media is under pressure, but this will not help them. In the next government, we will implement real right-wing policies, and care for the residents of the south.”

Otzma Yehudit leader and MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to students at Blich High School in Ramat Gan, September 20, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ben Gvir has experienced a surge of popularity since entering the Knesset in 2021, after years of sitting on the fringe of the political scene. His joint slate with Religious Zionism is polling at 12 seats, and opinion polls had consistently predicted significantly greater success for Ben Gvir than for Religions Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich if they were to have run separately.

An ardent admirer of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated transferring Israel’s Arabs out of the country, he has recently tried to downplay his views, declaring in a recent Channel 13 interview: “I am not Rabbi Kahana, I swear. I wouldn’t put forward bills for separate beaches, and I am not for generalizing all Arabs.”

Kahane’s Kach party was declared a terrorist organization by both the Israeli government and the US State Department a few years after the rabbi’s assassination in 1990, after which it disbanded.

Ben Gvir has claimed he isn’t in favor of expelling all Arabs — only terrorists. However, analysts have pointed out that he regularly refers to many Arab public figures with no history of terror-related activities, including elected lawmakers and party leaders, as “terrorists.”

The far-right lawmaker also used to hang on the wall of his Hebron home a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. He removed the picture once it became clear it harmed him politically. During a visit this month to a high school in the central city of Ramat Gan, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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