Netanyahu refuses to get onstage at holiday event until Ben Gvir steps down – report

After courting far-right MK for union with Religious Zionism ahead of elections, opposition leader said to avoid being photographed with him at Kfar Chabad gathering

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

Opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly refused to step onto a stage during a Simchat Torah event in Kfar Chabad on Monday until far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir stepped down, so as to avoid being photographed with the number two on the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit faction list, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc.

According to reports across the Hebrew media, Netanyahu’s advisers were behind the move, which angered Ben Gvir. “Shame on you,” the Otzma Yehudit leader told organizers, according to a Channel 12 report.

A reporter with the religious news site Kikar HaShabbat posted a short clip that showed Ben Gvir on stage in conversation with a group of people, one of whom is pulling at his arm, while a crowd chants his name. He appears to head for the stairs, after which Netanyahu agreed to get onstage.

According to the same reporter, Netanyahu’s office had told organizers earlier in the evening that he would bow out of the event but changed his mind once he learned that Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party and Israel’s current defense minister, would attend.

In another clip, Ben Gvir can be heard arguing with a person who pleads, “I am asking you,” and tells him, “I am not letting anyone speak, just Bibi,” in reference to Netanyahu.

Ben Gvir felt humiliated by the incident, according to the reports.

Ben Gvir is the leader of far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which is running with MK Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism. The two parties agreed to run together in the November 1 elections at the urging of Netanyahu.

A report last week said Netanyahu and Ben Gvir are meeting regularly and have agreed to coordinate on political campaigning and media strategy. However, no photos have been released of any of those consultations.

According to Channel 12, the two politicians discussed the areas in which they will focus their campaigns in a recent meeting, as well as media coordination. The unsourced report said Netanyahu hoped Ben Gvir would focus efforts on his traditional voter base, and on those who did not cast ballots in previous elections, rather than trying to attract Likud voters.

Netanyahu is reportedly concerned that Ben Gvir could take votes from Likud in the election. Ben Gvir was said to be equally keen that Netanyahu’s Likud not focus efforts on attracting voters from his party. A senior Likud member said last month that he would “do everything” to ensure Ben Gvir is included in the next government, despite his extremism and far-right stunts.

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

Until it began to harm him politically, Ben Gvir kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein on a wall of his Hebron home. Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Recently, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

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

The Otzma Yehudit leader 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.

The recent meeting between Netanyahu and Ben Gvir came against a backdrop of polls showing that the gap between Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Netanyahu remains narrow, with no clear victor after the November 1 elections.

Israeli polls are notably unreliable, but, nevertheless, often steer the decision-making of politicians.

Likud chief and opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A Channel 12 poll published last Tuesday, which asked respondents whom they would vote for if the election were held today, showed Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc receiving 59 seats, with Lapid’s outgoing coalition collecting 57 seats, and Hadash-Ta’al holding the other four seats.

Broken down into parties, the poll indicated that the Likud would receive 31 seats, Yesh Atid 24 seats, Religious Zionism-Otzma 13 seats, National Unity party 12 seats, Shas 8 seats, United Torah Judaism 7 seats, Yisrael Beytenu 6 seats, Labor 6 seats, Meretz 5 seats, Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al each with 4 seats. Jewish Home and the Arab nationalist Balad were not projected to cross the threshold.

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