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In a video message on Tuesday, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded with Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the feuding leaders of the far-right Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties, to put aside their differences and renew the alliance that saw them win six seats in last year’s elections. Warned Netanyahu: “Only running together will ensure that these parties clear the electoral threshold” — and thus make it safely into the Knesset in the November 1 elections.
Were one of the two Orthodox-nationalist parties to fall short, tens of thousands of Netanyahu-bloc votes would go to waste, and with them, quite possibly, the former prime minister’s prospects of a return to power. “We can’t take the risk,” cautioned the Likud leader, doubtless recalling the disaster of September 2019, when Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, running solo, failed to clear the threshold and threw away 83,609 votes.
Netanyahu has been intervening on Ben Gvir’s behalf for the past three years, shamefully elevating an adept, dangerous provocateur into the political mainstream.
Ben Gvir is an ardent admirer of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated transferring Israel’s Arabs out of the country. He was a teenage activist in Kahane’s Kach movement and was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading “Expel the Arab enemy.” But he has modified Kahane’s transfer demand, and dodged a parliamentary ban, by declaring he seeks to expel “only” those Arab Israeli citizens he deems “disloyal.”
He relentlessly stirs up friction between Jewish and Arab Israelis — he set up a parliamentary “office” with his supporters in East Jerusalem’s disputed Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where a riot ensued, in the days that preceded May 2021’s Gaza-Israel war; and he brought loyalists to Israel’s mixed cities during that conflict, where he was accused by the national police chief of abetting the worst inter-communal violence in recent Israeli history.
He has allied with some of Israel’s most deplorable extremist Jewish movements and activists — including the Jewish supremacist, anti-miscegenation Lehava, and the virulently homophobic Noam.
Until it began to harm him politically, he kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, on the wall of his home in Hebron and has never disavowed him.
It was Netanyahu’s deal-making that finally got Ben Gvir into the Knesset in March of last year, on Smotrich’s slate, but things have changed since then.
Energetic, articulate and increasingly politically skilled, Ben Gvir has been soaring in the election campaign so far — apparently drawing support from those on the right who consider Netanyahu and Smotrich too soft, from disaffected Sephardi youth (who identify with Ben Gvir’s Iraqi-Kurdish roots), and from some in the ultra-Orthodox sector (he was raised secular but became Orthodox). In polls that assume he and Smotrich will resume their alliance, Religious Zionism is already seen rising to about 10-11 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If Ben Gvir leads the partnership, however, surveys give it 13.
Running separately, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit had been polling at 8 seats, leaving Smotrich in his wake with five. But while a Channel 13 TV poll on Wednesday night showed both parties on the rise, with Ben Gvir on 9 seats and Smotrich on 7, Kan TV showed Smotrich barely scraping into the Knesset on 4 seats, and Channel 12 had Smotrich falling far below the 3.25% threshold.
Netanyahu’s appeal for far-right unity, plainly, was not directed at Ben Gvir. It was meant for Smotrich, whose Religious Zionism, to judge by Israel’s unreliable but influential polls, might not make it back into the Knesset at all if he chooses not to partner with his far-right ally-rival.
While Smotrich’s party claims it is Ben Gvir who is blocking a revived alliance, Ben Gvir earlier on Wednesday tweeted a document he’s signed setting out an equal partnership between Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism, with Smotrich in the top slot, Ben Gvir at No. 2 and their candidates alternating on down. Whereas he might have demanded the No. 1 position on the basis of his greater popularity, the astute Ben Gvir is being careful not to overplay his hand; he wants to be certain he won’t be blamed if Smotrich, gradually being eclipsed, runs and fails without him.
Having orchestrated the Smotrich-Ben Gvir partnership, Netanyahu, anticipating electoral victory, said in February 2021 that he’d want Otzma Yehudit in his “coalition” but that its leader was “not fit” to be a minister. Pushed in a TV interview to explain why Ben Gvir, whose parliamentary candidacy he had so assiduously advanced, was nonetheless beyond the pale when it came to governance, the then-prime minister initially sought to dodge the question before finally stating that “his positions are not mine.”
As it turned out, the most improbable political alliance in Israeli history, united only in its hostility to Netanyahu, combined to oust him after those elections, and the matter of minister Ben Gvir became moot. But if Netanyahu proves able to muster a coalition after November’s vote, it will be dependent on Ben Gvir one way or another, allied with Smotrich or not, and the returning PM will be in no position to deny the “not fit” Ben Gvir a seat at the cabinet table.
Ben Gvir first attracted national notoriety in a TV interview at age 19, in October 1995, weeks before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when he showed off the Cadillac symbol ripped from the prime minister’s car and declared, “We got to his car; we’ll get to him too.”
This election sees Ben Gvir getting to Israel; indeed potentially on the way to getting Israel: Running a ministry, it can be reliably assumed, is not the limit of Ben Gvir’s ambitions.
Ministerial office, however, would be the place from which he would be able to begin his push to remake Israel in his incendiary Kahanist vision, a vision for an Israel neither democratic nor authentically Jewish: To annex the territories while denying their Arab residents voting rights. To exercise “full sovereignty” at the Temple Mount, hoist the Israeli flag there and remove “all of the Waqf [Islamic] authorities seeking to harm Jews.” To advance the agendas of his Lehava and Noam allies. To “reform” the justice system to emphasize Jewish values over democratic ones. And to boot those “disloyal” Arab Israelis.
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