Ben Gvir solves his own coalition crisis, leveraging Gaza op to pump up his base

Ending his political boycott, national security minister uses offensive against Islamic Jihad, which he did not plan, to slide back into a coalition unwilling to meet his demands

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir is counting this week’s operation against Gaza terror groups as a political win, but his partners are making it difficult for him to claim any credit.

On Tuesday, Ben Gvir agreed to end his far-right Otzma Yehudit party’s boycott of government activity, cheering on the Israeli offensive that started when the military assassinated three senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza.

Ben Gvir had launched the boycott six days earlier to protest Israel’s “feeble” response to 104 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip at the country’s south last week.

But a day before Ben Gvir’s boycott, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others, Israel’s political leadership and military officials had already agreed to launch the Gaza operation.

In other words, the military response was in motion before Otzma Yehudit stepped out on the coalition, undermining the claim that pressure from Ben Gvir and his allies had prompted the offensive.

While Ben Gvir may not have pushed the government into a military operation, or secure his other political demands, he did notch two wins. First, he was given an elegant path out of the political crisis he created with the boycott. And second, perhaps more importantly, he placated his base.

Palestinians gather near a damaged house after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 9, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Despite this, Ben Gvir on Tuesday said his party had a “share” in the operation, and that he, “along with the defense minister,” ordered the targeted assassinations, during remarks at a Jerusalem conference hosted by the Israel Defense and Security Forum.

In actuality, though, Netanyahu has sidelined the national security minister from security cabinet meetings. He also sought and received the attorney general’s approval to advance Tuesday morning’s strikes without convening the cabinet, whose meeting Otzma Yehudit’s ministers skipped on Sunday anyway.

Ben Gvir also handed out “a very good grade for this operation” to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who, unlike the national security minister, was deeply involved in planning the mission.

“This is what I am looking for in a minister of defense and a prime minister,” Ben Gvir said, adding, “From here on out, I want offensive initiative.”

While the comments were ostensibly made to Gallant and Netanyahu, they were most directly targeted toward Ben Gvir’s own base, the estimated 5-10% of Israelis who in November chose his united ticket with the Religious Zionism party, largely because they were deeply concerned about Israel’s internal security.

Plagued by a steady terror wave, renewed rocket attacks and violent crime, some Israelis were primed for the tough-on-crime-and-terror promises that Ben Gvir made to voters.

The only problem, as his partners in the coalition will readily admit behind closed doors, is that Ben Gvir could not deliver — nor could anyone else.

Since December, Ben Gvir has spent his time as a minister sidelined by Netanyahu, who has marginalized him from key security forums. Instead, Ben Gvir has pushed his own initiatives to harshly punish terrorists and to reconstruct a languishing national guard as a force to police poorly governed regions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ’40-signatures’ debate at the Knesset on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He has also turned his criticism from the former government led by Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid, now sitting in the opposition, to his own political partners.

When Ben Gvir threatened to quit the government last week, Netanyahu’s Likud party said that if he was unsatisfied he could choose to leave.

None of Likud’s five coalition partner parties want the government to collapse, including Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit. With a 64-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset, the parties know they need each other to hang on to power after a year of warming benches in the opposition.

Ben Gvir is already seeing a modest bump in polling, but his numbers are not strong enough to justify leaving the government and triggering an election to better his own position.

Nevertheless, the general sentiment in the coalition continues to hold that Ben Gvir is the political loose cannon — one that was, for now, quieted by an airstrike he did not have a hand in planning.

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