Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said Tuesday that his extremist political partner Itamar Ben Gvir will be a senior minister in a potential future government led by current opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu.
Smotrich rejoined with Ben Gvir’s extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party ahead of the upcoming November elections. While the parties ran on a combined slate in the past, Otzma Yehudit has now secured far greater representation on the list, as opinion polls have consistently predicted significantly greater success for Ben Gvir than for Smotrich if they run separately.
“According to the [polling] numbers, as of now, Itamar will certainly be a senior minister,” Smotrich told the Ynet news site in an interview. “This is the meaning of democracy.
“We will receive great support from the public and Itamar has a significant part in that. I hope we will be the third-largest party in Israel,” he said.
Smotrich said Ben Gvir’s growing popularity was a positive development. “Israeli society is sobering up and returning to healthy instincts: We’re the bosses here, and whoever wants to live with us — that’s excellent.”
Former prime minister Netanyahu, who brokered the deal to get the two to run together in a bid to improve his chances of returning to power, said ahead of previous elections that he did not believe the extremist Ben Gvir was fit to be a minister.
But that tune has changed as Ben Gvir has increased his popularity and as it has become clear that Netanyahu won’t be able to form a government without the extremist leader taking a central role.
A senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party said last week that he would “do everything” to ensure Ben Gvir is included in the next government.
Miki Zohar, who is 10th 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.”
In his Tuesday interview, Smotrich also refused to back down from his remarks this week urging a ban on Israel’s current Arab political parties, comments in which he also stirred up fears of “massacres” by “thousands of Arab rioters” during future wartime.
Doubling down, Smotrich told Ynet: “The day we take [the current Arab parties] out of the equation, an opening will be created for different leadership. There are positive undercurrents in the Arab society, for a different and brave leadership that will accept the State of Israel’s founding ethos as a Jewish state and will aim to integrate into it.”
Ben Gvir is an ardent admirer of extremist rabbi Meir 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, 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.”
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 a visit this month to a high school in the central city of Ramat Gan, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”
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.