A candidate for the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit dismissed his party’s opponents on Sunday, claiming that they were focusing their criticism on the late Meir Kahane, who, while revered by him and his colleagues, was no longer relevant.
“All they have to say is ‘Rabbi Kahane, Rabbi Kahane’ because they have nothing on us,” Itamar Ben Gvir said Sunday in an interview with The Times of Israel.
The attorney activist did not deny that he was an admirer of the extremist rabbi, whose Kach party was barred from running in the 1988 elections for inciting violence. The movement was later banned from Israel entirely under anti-terrorism laws.
“I, unfortunately, was never able to meet him before he was assassinated [in 1990], but I was a student of his [works]. I think they’re carrying out a character assassination against him,” Ben Gvir said of Kahane’s modern-day critics.
In 2007, Ben Gvir was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terror group after holding up signs reading, “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Rabbi Kahane was right: The Arab MKs are a fifth column.”
“They’re bringing up things that are from more than 30 years ago, when it’s clear that we’re not in the same place anymore,” Ben Gvir said.
Pressed to explain the difference between Kahane’s party of the mid-1980s and the contemporary version being run by his disciples, Ben Gvir said much of the distinctions had to do with “style.”
Contrary to his late teacher, Otzma Yehudit does not support expelling all Arab-Israelis from the country, Ben Gvir said.
“Those who are loyal to the state, ahlan wa sahlan,” he quipped, using an Arabic welcoming phrase. “But those who are not must be expelled.”
Ben Gvir, 42, said his party would not strip “loyal” Arab Israelis of their citizenship. As for Palestinians living beyond the Green Line who would come under the Jewish state’s control in Otzma Yehudit’s plan to annex the entire West Bank, he said they would not receive citizenship.
Beyond the examples of Arab Israeli MKs Ahmad Tibi and Hanin Zoabi, “who say you have to wipe out the Jewish state,” Ben Gvir did not elaborate on how loyalty could be tested. “I imagine we’ll be able to find a simple solution [for doing so].”
Ben Gvir is hoping to be Otzma Yehudit’s second representative in the Knesset after the elections in April, thanks to a merger deal his faction inked with the Jewish Home party last week. Under the agreement, Otzma Yehudit co-founder and chairman Michael Ben Ari was given the number five spot on the joint slate while Ben Gvir was placed eighth. A Thursday Channel 13 poll predicted the party would receive eight seats.
The merger deal faced initial opposition from part of the Jewish Home leadership, which expressed concern that it could scare away its more moderate supporters. However, the national religious party’s plummet in the polls since its December abandonment by former leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Ayelet Shaked, combined with intense pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, led them to agree to team up with Otzma Yehudit.
Netanyahu agreed to give the Jewish Home — now led by Rafi Peretz, who also folded Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union into his faction earlier this month — two ministerial posts in addition to the 28th spot on the Likud list. In past elections, the prime minister has worked to steer support to Likud away from other right-wing parties, but was apparently wary of doing so this time around before ensuring that those factions would be able to cross the necessary electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the national vote.
Commenting on the premier’s exhaustive efforts to bring about the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit merger — including, reportedly, postponing a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — Ben Gvir said they did not necessarily indicate any warm feeling by Netanyahu toward his party.
“I’m not naive. I don’t that Netanyahu woke up one day and discovered Itamar ben Gvir or Michael Ben Ari and was enchanted by what we have to say,” he said. “He knows that if we didn’t carry out this deal, the Jewish Home would not have crossed the electoral threshold.”
While Ben Gvir said that his party “did not come to sit in the opposition,” he asserted that Otzma Yehudit will also have red lines in any future Netanyahu-led coalition.
He said, for example, that he would not have stood for Israel’s “lack of response” to the barrage of 500 rockets fired at the south over less than two days in November.
The Israel Defense Forces targeted approximately 160 sites in the Gaza Strip connected to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in response to those attacks, but Ben Gvir said he would have demanded the military carry out targeted killings of terror leaders.
He admitted that his rhetoric was similar to that of other lawmakers on the right who have criticized Netanyahu’s policies vis-a-vis Gaza, but was confident that he would be able to back up his talk when in the Knesset.
“That’s the difference between us and them,” he said. “The difference is in actions, not words.”
In addition to encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, Ben Gvir said his party ardently opposes miscegenation. “However, if someone were to ask me if I’m going to put forth a bill in favor of separation [between Jews and Arabs] at beaches… the answer is no,” Ben Gvir said, referencing legislation once proposed by Kahane. He hinted that while his party opposed relationships between Jews and non-Jews, it would not legislate to prohibit them.
Otzma Yehudit’s breakout from taboo to political kingmakers has been met with intense public outcry from prominent figures, including some on the same side of the political spectrum, as well as from pro-Israel groups abroad who typically refrain from commenting on internal Israeli politics.
Rabbi Benny Lau, spiritual leader of the Modern Orthodox Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem, said in a Saturday sermon that a vote for Otzma Yehudit was akin to backing Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. A day earlier, the US lobby group AIPAC issued a rare rebuke in which it called the far-right faction “racist and reprehensible.”
Ben Gvir claimed the criticism his party faced had more to do with its support of Netanyahu. “If we said we’re in favor of (Blue and White chairman Benny) Gantz, the criticism would stop.”
He said he was unbothered by the criticism and that it had to do with the fact that “the left is scared.”
Still, Ben Gvir pushed back against the characterization of Otzma Yehudit as an extremist party. “What is extremist about us? That we think terrorists should receive the death penalty? In the US [such a punishment] already exists. What’s extremist about taking out terrorists after they’ve bombed Sderot?” he continued.
Asked what he felt was missing from the public’s perception of his party, Ben Gvir responded that “we want to do good for the people of Israel and for the State of Israel.
“We are Zionists,” he said. “My mother was in the Etzel (pre-state paramilitary group) and then was an officer in the army. Her entire life she taught about the importance of loving the country, which is what we’re doing.”