ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Netanyahu ally: ‘I’d do everything’ to include extremist Ben Gvir in government

Likud MK Miki Zohar defends controversial far-right MK but says he’ll need to ‘adjust’ to Likud party; Otzma Yehudit leader praises racist rabbi Kahane as ‘hero’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Far right MK Itamar Ben Gvir addresses students at the Blich High School in Ramat Gan, September 6, 2022 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Far right MK Itamar Ben Gvir addresses students at the Blich High School in Ramat Gan, September 6, 2022 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A senior member of opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party said Wednesday that he would “do everything” to ensure extremist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir is included in the next government.

Miki Zohar, who is tenth on the Likud electoral slate and is considered an ally of Netanyahu, defended the controversial far-right politician as “a right-wing person who, bottom line, has maintained his Jewish pride.”

“Those who think Itamar Ben Gvir is a terrible person who doesn’t contribute to Israel are bitterly wrong and are flat-out lying,” he argued during an interview with the Srugim news site. “He believes in very many principles that we in Likud also believe in — and there are also areas in which we disagree with him.”

Asked if he would insist on including Ben Gvir in a potential Netanyahu-led government after the November 1 election, Zohar said: “I would do anything for him to be part of the government, to be clear. But at the same time, I am telling Itamar Ben Gvir and I will tell him in real time as well — he will have to adjust himself to Likud’s positions and to the policy of the government that Netanyahu and Likud will lead.”

Ben Gvir, the head of the Otzma Yehudit party, which is running with the Religious Zionism party, made waves with a Tuesday visit to a prestigious central Israel school that has a history of encouraging political engagement among students.

Center-left politicians criticized the management of Blich High School in Ramat Gan for inviting Ben Gvir, a far-right disciple of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Principal Hila Romesh defended the move, which came as part of the school’s tradition of holding mock elections among students, adding that the leader of predominantly Arab Joint List party, Ayman Odeh, has been invited to speak at the school soon as well.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Likud MK Miki Zohar at a meeting of opposition parties in Netanyahu’s right wing-religious bloc, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir’s arrival was met with a protest at the school entrance by dozens of left-wing activists, including Labor MK Gilad Kariv. In turn, they were greeted by some school students, apparently supporters of Ben Gvir, with chants of “May your village burn” — a slogan that has been heard at numerous far-right events in recent years.

Ben Gvir is an ardent admirer of Kahane, who advocated transferring Israel’s Arabs out of the country. Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading “Expel the Arab enemy.”

In recent public remarks and during his visit to Blich school, he has sought to downplay his extremist views, saying 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.”

Speaking Tuesday in an interview with Channel 13 news, Ben Gvir was asked why his home is full of books written by Kahane and portraits of him, and whether this doesn’t indicate that he still aims to expel all the Arabs.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. The sign behind him reads, “Kahane was right!” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“You’re incapable of comprehending nuance,” Ben Gvir retorted. “You asked me about Rabbi Kahane, his portrait is in my home. Yes, I think he was a hero when he fought for Soviet Jews, and yes, I think he was a hero when he fought antisemitism in the United States, and he also proposed a death sentence for terrorists.

“But I don’t support deporting all the Arabs, and I have said countless times that I disagree with Rabbi Kahane’s advocating of segregated beaches,” he said.

Asked whether his statements becoming less extreme was merely an attempt to avoid being disqualified from running in the election — as other past members of Otzma Yehudit have been — Ben Gvir said: “No, I know that my battle today is against terrorists, those who throw firebombs at IDF soldiers.”

Until it began to harm him politically, Ben Gvir also kept on a 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. During his visit to Blich high school on Tuesday, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

The photo of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein hung in the home of Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Ben Gvir frequently stirs up friction between Jewish and Arab Israelis and was reportedly accused by the national police chief of abetting the worst inter-communal violence in recent Israeli history in May of last year.

He has additionally allied with some of Israel’s most extremist Jewish movements and activists — including Lehava, a Jewish supremacist anti-miscegenation group, and the virulently homophobic Noam.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen with Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 6, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Last month, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism announced that they had agreed to run together in the upcoming Knesset elections, after opposition chief Netanyahu hosted a meeting with the leaders of the far-right parties to broker a merger agreement.

The two factions ran on a joint slate in last year’s elections under a deal brokered by Netanyahu, but had split over the makeup of the slate for the coming vote, with Ben Gvir seeking greater representation as recent polls showed him surging in popularity while Religious Zionism received mixed results.

A joint statement from Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism said the deal would help lead to a “victory” for the Netanyahu-led right-wing religious bloc.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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