Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told the High Court of Justice on Monday that he has become “more refined” since entering the Knesset two years ago and therefore should not be disqualified from serving in the cabinet.
“I made mistakes, but so many years have passed. I’m in a different place today, but they insist on taking me back to who I was then,” Ben Gvir told the court in a hearing on a petition from several left-wing groups demanding that he be disqualified from serving as national security minister due to his criminal past.
Ben Gvir gained notoriety as a teenager when he was filmed bragging about having stolen the emblem from then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, shortly before Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.
“Just like we got to this emblem, we can get to Rabin,” Ben Gvir said at the time.
He was later arrested and charged dozens of times for his far-right activism, and was convicted for incitement to violence and supporting a terror group for distributing stickers that read “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Kahane was right.”
Ben Gvir, now 46 years old, grew up in the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach movement, which has been blacklisted in both the US and Israel.
The minister’s past was repeatedly brought up by attorneys for the petitioners seeking to have Ben Gvir disqualified from his cabinet post.
“Twenty-year-old Ben Gvir and also 14-year-old Ben Gvir was a child who cared deeply about Israel,” Ben Gvir said, asserting that he was no longer the same person that he once was.
“I made mistakes. I’ve said for years that passing out stickers that read, ‘If there are no Arabs, there are no terror attacks,’ was not the right thing to do, that calling for ‘deporting the Arab enemy’ was not right either, because it comes off as if I was calling for all Arabs to be deported and not all Arabs should be deported,” he said.
He later reiterated his opposition to the 1995 massacre of 29 Muslim worshipers carried out by Baruch Goldstein at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. Until 2020, Ben Gvir had a photo of Goldstein hanging in his living room, removing it after coming under significant political pressure as he sought to enter the Knesset.
“I’m not a disciple of Rabbi Kahane,” he insisted on Monday, pointing out that he doesn’t support the late racist rabbi’s call for separate beaches for Jews and Arabs.
However, Ben Gvir has repeatedly spoken at the annual memorial event for Kahane, including this past year.
In 2020, he began his remarks by saying, “Today, everyone knows that Rabbi Kahane was right.” In 2019, he called Kahane a great leader and said those in the room were his “disciples.” The following year, he said the Knesset should revoke the ban on Kahane’s Kach party from running in elections.
At the Monday hearing, Ben Gvir stressed that he no longer agrees with “Kahane’s Torah in its entirety” and noted that this has cost him close friends with whom he long worked as an activist. He appeared to be referring to the extremists Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein, who have broken with Ben Gvir over the past year, claiming the minister has diverged from the original path of the Otzma Yehudit party that they helped establish together.
Ben Gvir maintained that when lawmakers enter the Knesset “you become more refined.”
“To be clear, I have not changed my skin. I am still a right-wing person, but yes, I am becoming more refined,” he said.
Justice Noam Sohlberg asked Ben Gvir whether he had reached the peak of his new refined self or whether he would continue down the path. Ben Gvir jokingly responded that he hoped he had peaked, as he still wanted to return home to his wife, who is known to hold similar views.
Ben Gvir was representing himself on Monday after refusing to allow Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to represent him in the case, as is standard practice for government ministers. The two have sparred regularly since the formation of the government three months ago, and Ben Gvir has several times called for her to be fired.
Baharav-Miara indicated last week, however, that she does not oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s December decision to appoint Ben Gvir to the senior post of national security minister.
In January, the High Court struck down Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s appointment to the cabinet, calling his position in the cabinet “unreasonable in the extreme” due to his criminal convictions.
מה חושב ״בן גביר החדש״ על ערבים ועל כהנא? מתוך הדיון כעת בבית המשפט העליון pic.twitter.com/SVAsgC1nvO
— Suleiman Maswadeh (@SuleimanMas1) April 3, 2023
But Baharav-Miara told the High Court that Ben Gvir’s appointment did not cross into that territory. In her response to the petition against the minister, the attorney general noted that the Otzma Yehudit chief’s role as national security minister “entails considerable difficulties” but that it was “not unreasonable in the extreme” for him to hold the cabinet position.
She pointed to a slew of Ben Gvir’s past activities, including his arrests, racist and anti-LGBTQ statements, and incendiary behavior, arguing that it harms “public trust in government authorities,” in particular the National Security Ministry.
However, she wrote, the prime minister has “very broad discretion” in making cabinet appointments and noted that Ben Gvir’s criminal offenses occurred many years ago and that he has not been indicted for any criminal behavior since 2007. The attorney general pointed out that the 15 years that have passed are far greater than the seven years required by Basic Law between a conviction and holding public office.
The petition against the Otzma Yehudit chair was first filed in late December — before Ben Gvir was sworn in as a minister — claiming that the far-right firebrand was unqualified to be appointed as minister in charge of the police due to his repeated involvement in efforts to disturb the public order.
But at the time, Baharav-Miara called on the High Court to reject the petition for being “premature.” The attorney general said then that “the discussion is theoretical if it takes place before ministers are appointed or begin in their roles.”