From far right to ‘cuddly care bear,’ Ben Gvir’s political whitewashing is underway

Otzma Yehudit leader’s soaring popularity comes with a softened persona ahead of elections; but Netanyahu is still hesitant to fully endorse him

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, visits Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, northern Israel, October 6, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, visits Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, northern Israel, October 6, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Less than two weeks out from Israel’s November 1 election, far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir has undergone a makeover in the Israeli media, even as his more inflammatory statements and actions also make the news.

The dichotomy has at times been stark.

On Thursday, Ben Gvir drew a handgun in the flashpoint East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Arab community that has been the scene of repeated tensions and clashes. Amid heightened tensions in the capital, Ben Gvir tweeted that he was going “to protect Jewish residents” and criticized police offers for not “shooting or arresting” a man who threw a rock at an Israeli settler.

The next morning, Israel’s Channel 13 hosted him for a cooking segment, during which the Knesset member discussed his decision to pull out his gun while demonstrating how to best make his recipe for stuffed peppers.

Since entering the Knesset last year, Ben Gvir, an affable presence in TV studios, has become a favorite guest on various networks.

In September, Labor party leader Merav Michaeli carped that Ben Gvir has been attempting to portray himself as “a cuddly care bear.”

Related: Understanding the ominous rise of Israel’s most notorious ultra-nationalist

On Channel 12 on Saturday evening, a right-wing political commentator asserted that not only had Ben Gvir been normalized, he was now a “normal” element of Israel’s political spectrum.

“In terms of normalization, Ben Gvir is completely normal,” said Irit Linor, adding that “he’s definitely normal in the context of extremist parties,” in which she included the left-wing Meretz party and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev of the center-left Labor party.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party visits in Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar, northern Israel, October 6, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

And it’s not just in the media.

Ben Gvir’s normalization trajectory has been steep. He was frozen out of the Knesset in the first three elections since 2019 and initially deemed too extreme even for the Religious Zionism party — itself at the right edge of national-religious representation. But his growing popularity on the hard right has led him to now hold the second spot in a slate that combines Religious Zionism with his Otzma Yehudit faction.

The merger between the parties was put together by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has twice now brokered political deals delivering Ben Gvir into the Knesset. The former prime minister also made a personal visit to the spiritual leader of Noam, an ultra-right, anti-LGBTQ party, in order to convince it too to team up again with Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit. (Netanyahu says his objective is to prevent the waste of right-wing votes for parties that fail to enter parliament.)

In 2021, Netanyahu said Ben Gvir would not be a minister in his government. A year later, his party members have softened their stance on Ben Gvir’s possible future role.

Offering a realpolitik take on the transformation, journalist Ben Caspit — the author of two books about Netanyahu — said Ben Gvir’s mainstreaming is a matter of political expedience.

“Until now we’d say that Ben Gvir’s existence was owed to Netanyahu,” said Caspit on Saturday. “Now it’s the opposite. Netanyahu depends upon Ben Gvir.”

Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in Jerusalem on September 11, 2022 and Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir (R) in Jerusalem on July 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Ben Gvir has grown his base from 0.42% of the 2020 vote in an independent run to the approximately 14 seats Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit is polling at, which would make it the third-largest party in the Knesset.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, who balked at the terms under which Ben Gvir wanted to renew their ballot box partnership, said in September that Ben Gvir will be a senior minister in the next government. Smotrich also now needs the firebrand MK for votes.

Although Ben Gvir is sitting in the second spot in their alliance, below Smotrich, a Saturday poll by Channel 12 found that Ben Gvir is the more popular figure. When asked who is the leading personality on their slate, 52% of voters said Ben Gvir, with only 17% citing Smotrich and the rest unsure.

Smotrich — who in 2005 was arrested by the Shin Bet on suspicion of organizing violent protests against the Gaza disengagement but was never charged, and later organized an anti-gay “Beast Parade” to rival Jerusalem’s pride parade — was once the poster child for hard-right parliamentarians. Yet, with Ben Gvir as a foil, he has of late been cast as a more moderate voice.

On Saturday, Smotrich said that Ben Gvir’s increasing popularity is “refreshing” as an antidote to “political correctness.”

Members of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich (left) and Itamar Ben Gvir, along with MKs from the Religious Zionism party, visit at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old city on October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The strengthening of the popularity of Itamar Ben Gvir in the Israeli public is one of the more refreshing and optimistic [trends] in Israeli society, because it is sobering up after many years of political correctness, which has taken over the conversation,” Smotrich told Channel 12. “This nation is returning to the instinctual, natural discussion of a healthy nation…which knows how to define who exactly is its enemy.”

As far as defining enemies goes, Ben Gvir has advocated for deporting Arabs who attack military personnel or who are “disloyal,” for annexing the heavily Palestinian-populated West Bank, and for Israel to flex its muscles on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

He has also come out against political partnerships and romantic relationships between Arabs and Jews, and has partnered with openly homophobic politicians Smotrich and Noam’s Avi Maoz.

In June, Ben Gvir’s wife told Army Radio that although they took down their living room picture of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein “because of internal demands from the right-wing,” they’ve kept the portrait of late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, with whose ideology Ben Gvir has associated himself. “I just hang pictures that I receive as a gift,” she said.

Ben Gvir’s own party candidate, Almog Cohen, was recorded in September telling activists that the party’s toned-down messaging was a campaign “trick” to mollify voters and to subvert rules against candidates holding racist views.

Although Ben Gvir’s normalization has been swift, it has yet to be completed. While Netanyahu has reportedly been meeting with Ben Gvir to discuss campaign strategy, he has assiduously avoided being photographed with the Otzma Yehudit leader.

This came to an embarrassing head on Monday night, when Netanyahu refused to take the stage at a campaign event until Ben Gvir vacated it. A video shows Ben Gvir being awkwardly hustled off the platform before Netanyahu arrived. Army Radio reported on Tuesday morning that a Netanyahu adviser told Ben Gvir that they wanted to avoid a picture with him in order to not hurt chances to build a “broad” coalition after the election.

With his nationalist-Orthodox bloc of Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas and United Torah Judaism still polling at 59-60, just short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu reaffirmed in a Tuesday video message that he plans to form a post-election government with Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Whether Likud ultimately reaches beyond its right-religious core remains to be seen in the post-election results and coalition negotiations, as does a further verdict on whether or not Ben Gvir’s koshering process has been completed — possibly in a photo of the next government’s lineup of ministers.

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