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MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Main image: MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Inside Story

Understanding the ominous rise of Israel’s most notorious ultra-nationalist

With a poll giving Religious Zionism 13 seats if headed by extremist Itamar Ben Gvir, a look at where these votes are coming from and what they say about where Israel may be headed

Main image: MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

If you are a politician looking to bolster your man-of-the-people bona fides ahead of an election, you head to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market to gladhand the shoppers and hawkers bustling about its stalls and alleyways.

Last month, the market was host to pre-eminent far-right, ultra-nationalist MK Itamar Ben Gvir, a man convicted in the past of incitement to racial hatred and who, until recently, had a picture of a mass-murderer hanging in his living room.

He was greeted with gusto.

The crowd chanted his name and sang a lively ditty about Ben Gvir being the next prime minister. Numerous market patrons hugged, shook hands, and requested selfies with the far-right leader.

Mahane Yehuda is a well-known bastion of right-wing sentiment, but until recently, a visit by Ben Gvir, 46, would have been little more than a minor curiosity.

But just over a year after squeaking into the Knesset as part of Bezalel Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism alliance, polls show Ben Gvir leading the party to a commanding Knesset position. It’s only on the street, or in the shuk, though, that those numbers become real, each selfie a sign of how far to the right Israel’s political pendulum appears to have swung.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the far right Otzma Yehudit party tours the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 22, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2019, at the beginning of Israel’s apparently interminable political crisis, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party was still a political pariah.

It was initially excluded from a union of right-wing, religious parties Jewish Home and National Union, and faced another election in which it would likely fail to enter the Knesset.

Fast forward three years and that situation has now been upended.

The Jewish Home party, the successor of the historic National Religious Party, has almost entirely collapsed and is no longer represented in the Knesset.

The Yamina party, which inherited Jewish Home’s more moderate right-wing voter base, was able to crown its leader Naftali Bennett prime minister for a year. But today, the party is itself facing political annihilation, driven by the government’s decision to ally with the Arab Ra’am party, and rudderless after Bennett decided to step away from politics.

Meanwhile, Ben Gvir is flying high in the polls. Voters who fled Jewish Home and Yamina have seemingly recongregated as backers of Religious Zionism. The party regularly polls at 10 seats or more, up from its current tally of six, though Israeli media polls are generally to be taken with a grain of salt.

One particularly favorable poll for Ben Gvir conducted for Channel 13 News suggested that Religious Zionism would win 13 seats with Ben Gvir at the helm, three more than it would garner if Smotrich were to lead it into the November 1 elections.

Far-right MKs Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City on October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Such a result would make Religious Zionism, with its Jewish supremacists and far-right agitators, the third largest party in the country, according to the channel’s polling results.

Another poll conducted for Channel 12 and published last week put Otzma on seven seats and Religious Zionism on just four if the two parties ran separately.

These polling figures demonstrate how Ben Gvir’s ultra-nationalist outfit has gone from outcast to political asset in the space of less than one full Knesset term.

Keenly aware of Ben Gvir’s political tailwind, Smotrich has offered his colleague-cum-rival joint leadership of the united list in order to secure a unity agreement.

Although disputes still persist between the two sides, it appears that a deal is imminent.

A careful Kahanist

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party — the name translates to Jewish Power —  is the ideological successor of the far-right and racist Kach party which was founded and led by Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1988 in New York.

Kach advocated the removal of Arab citizens from the country and the establishment of a theocracy. It and its immediate splinter Kahane Chai were both blacklisted by Israel in 1994, after follower Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Ben Gvir insists that Otzma no longer advocates for the kind of racist and segregationist policies of Kach. But he also says his party identifies with Kach’s ideology and Otzma presents itself unabashedly as an ultra-nationalist, Jewish supremacist political outfit.

Jewish men clash with Palestinians as MK Itamar Ben Gvir arrives to open his office in the neighborhood, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, February 13, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Otzma advocates for the annexation of the entire West Bank, but without granting Palestinians Israeli citizenship; seeks to expel “disloyal” Arab citizens from Israel without defining how such a determination be made; and encourages Arab citizens in general to emigrate so as to make Israel more homogeneously Jewish.

An Otzma party manifesto from the 2019 election campaign stated that it would “work to remove the enemies of Israel from our country.”

Ben Gvir has been vague as to what defines “an enemy.” Baruch Marzel, a senior member of the party, said he believes “a majority” of Arab Israelis are enemies, although not all of them.

Marzel was banned from running for Knesset by the Supreme Court in 2019 due to incitement to racism.

The party also places a heavy focus on overhauling Israel’s judicial system so that it emphasizes Jewish values over democratic values, especially in regard to minority rights.

In recent years, Religious Zionism in its various incarnations has navigated to more extreme ideological waters while Otzma has toned down the overtly racist policies and rhetoric of its Kahanist predecessors, leaving both parties occupying similar political ground.

But Otzma’s more extremist ideological roots, especially regarding Jewish supremacy in Israel, lend it greater appeal to elements in Israeli society with overtly ethnonationalist beliefs.

Its advocacy for Arab emigration and the expulsion of “disloyal” Arab citizens is something that Religious Zionism does not generally advocate or mention, but gives Otzma traction among extremist elements of the electorate.

Ben Gvir has in recent years been extremely wary of saying anything that might get him banned by the High Court from running for office.

And the challenge of spreading his extremist ideology without slipping into hate speech was on display during his recent jaunt through Mahane Yehuda.

As party supporters chanted “death to terrorists” — Ben Gvir and others on the more moderate right have pushed for installing capital punishment in terror cases — one acolyte cried out “death to Arabs” instead.

The Otzma leader was unamused and vociferously told the renegade cheerleader to revert to the officially approved slogan.

He later told Channel 12 news that it had been years since he had chanted “death to Arabs,” or pushed Kahane’s so-called “transfer” policy.

“I’m no longer 16, 20 or 25… I was wrong when I generalized that all the Arabs should be expelled,” he told the network.

A serial provocateur

Most Israelis were first introduced to Ben Gvir in 1995, when the 19-year-old extremist youth leader infamously ripped the Cadillac insignia from prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car. Showing off the booty, Ben Gvir boasted to a news camera: “We got the car. We’ll get to Rabin too.”

Weeks later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist.

A lawyer who has made a career out of defending other right-wing extremists, Ben Gvir grew up in a religiously traditional but not strictly observant family in the middle-class town of Mevaseret Zion.

In his maiden speech in Knesset last year, Ben Gvir outlined how his right-wing views began developing during his youth amid the First Intifada. He became a fervent opponent of the Oslo Accords and after high school studied at the Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea established by Kahane.

These associations and his far-right activism led naturally to a political career with the far-right political factions, and in the 18th Knesset he became a parliamentary aide to MK Michael Ben-Ari, who went on to found Otzma Yehudit’s predecessor Otzma LeYisrael in 2012.

Ben Gvir became the de facto leader of the party in 2019 when Ben Ari and Marzel were banned from running for Knesset by the High Court.

Ben Gvir himself has several criminal convictions to his name. In 2007, he was found guilty of incitement to racism and supporting a terror organization for holding signs at a protest reading “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Kahane was right,” a Jewish supremacist slogan endorsing Kach’s proposal to ethnically cleanse Israel of its Arab citizens.

Itamar Ben Gvir seen holding up an ornament from prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, in an October 1995 interview. (Screen capture: YouTube/IBA)

Until 2020, Ben Gvir had a picture of Jewish terrorist Goldstein hanging on his living room wall. He said he removed it in January 2020 when it became a political liability — Bennett had cited the picture as a reason for refusing a New Right-Otzma Yehudit merger. He has not disavowed his lionization of Goldstein, who was killed while carrying out the attack.

Ben Gvir is also a serial provocateur and has made a habit of staging demonstrations in sensitive locations designed to antagonize Arab Israelis and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most incendiary such incident was in early May 2021. As tensions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah ramped up over the then-pending eviction of Palestinian families there, Ben Gvir inserted himself into the conflict by setting up a makeshift parliamentary office with fellow far-right provocateur Bentzi Gopstein, head of the racist Jewish supremacist organization Lehava.

The office, a folding table and some chairs under a pop-up canopy set up on a sidewalk, was established opposite the location where protesters against the evictions had been meeting for nightly iftar meals which break the day-long fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan

Ben Gvir and Gopstein brought far-right supporters to the area and a riot was sparked, apparently when one of these activists sprayed what appeared to be pepper spray at the Palestinian iftar table.

Intelligence officials warned that Hamas would fire rockets at Jerusalem if Ben Gvir did not leave, which he eventually did following pressure from then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Days later, Hamas did indeed fire rockets at Jerusalem in response to Sheikh Jarrah tensions and police actions on the Temple Mount, setting off 11 days of intense fighting.

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)

During the fighting, police chief Kobi Shabtai accused Ben Gvir of abetting some of the worst inter-communal violence in Israel’s history by bringing busloads of Lehava backers to cities with mixed Jewish-Arab populations, such as Lod, Ramle and Acre, that saw some of the worst fighting during the riots.

Ben Gvir has maintained his firebrand attitude since entering the Knesset, usually aiming his brickbats at Arab or left-wing lawmakers. In July 2021, Ben Gvir scuffled with Knesset guards when he was asked to be removed for calling Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi a terrorist. In October, he and the Joint List leader scuffled in a hospital hallway, and in June of this year, he and Tibi nearly came to blows inside the Knesset plenum.

Aside from seeking to add the death penalty to Israel’s penal code, Ben Gvir has also pursued judicial reform. The Otzma leader, together with other right-wing MKs, has twice brought a bill to a vote in the Knesset which would hand the government and Knesset total control over the selection process for Supreme Court judges, rather than also involving other justices and lawyers as is currently done.

Right-wing Israelis have long seen the court as a bastion of leftism; by installing judges more friendly to right-wing causes, Otzma hopes to remake the court in its ideological image, placing Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic values.

Disaffected Mizrahim and ultra-Orthodox youth

There appear to be two main sources of voters who prefer Ben Gvir over Smotrich: Mizrahim and the ultra-Orthodox.

Mizrahi Jews, of Middle Eastern or North African descent, skew in very general terms to the right of the political spectrum and some are likely attracted to Otzma’s chauvinistic nationalism, especially younger voters disillusioned with the status quo.

The Channel 13 poll indicated that two of Religious Zionism’s extra seats with Ben Gvir as party leader would come from the Likud, the historic party of traditional Mizrahi voters, many of whom come from working-class backgrounds and live away from the nation’s economic center.

Mizrahi youth “think no one takes them into account, don’t have a voice, and don’t think they’ll be able to get on the property ladder or get a well-paying job,” said Prof. Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

The disaffection makes a radical party headed by a charismatic leader espousing “almost revolutionary” ideals on an ultra-nationalist platform extremely attractive for such people, she added.

There may also be an element of identity politics at play. Ben Gvir is himself a Mizrahi Jew who grew up in a religiously traditional family, which makes him more appealing and easier to connect with for the Mizrachi sector than Smotrich, who, like Likud leader Netanyahu, comes from European stock.

‘There is a vibe and energy about him, he connects to the youth, he goes out onto the streets to meet people’

Ben Gvir may also be pulling support from ultra-Orthodox youth, a large subset of whom have become increasingly nationalistic and ethnocentric, according to Moshe Hellinger, a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University.

The fact that Ben Gvir is very religious means that although voting for Otzma would constitute a rebellion from the usual instructions of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis to vote for ultra-Orthodox parties, they would still be voting for a religious party with Jewish theocratic values at its core.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men seen during protests in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, Saturday, June 27, 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

According to Hermann, the strongly-held belief in ultra-Orthodox society of the elevated status of the Jewish people as the chosen people fits neatly with Otzma’s assertion of Jewish supremacy in Israel.

Ben Gvir’s charisma is also a draw, noted Yisroel Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox journalist and commentator for the Kol Barama radio station.

“There is a vibe and energy about him, he connects to the youth, he goes out onto the streets to meet people,” said Cohen, noting that the politicians of the ultra-Orthodox parties are older and have less personal magnetism.

MK Moshe Gafni (left) with United Torah Judaism party colleague Meir Porush in the Knesset, June 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ben Gvir is also very responsive to personal requests from the general public for assistance on various matters, and frequently responds directly to WhatsApp messages, including from young ultra-Orthodox men.

This direct access increases his exposure and popularity among the ultra-Orthodox, Cohen said.

After two recent terror attacks in ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak and Elad, Ben Gvir was swiftly on the scene, as he is after many terror attacks, while ultra-Orthodox MKs stayed away.

A home for Yamina exiles

Even if headed by Smotrich, polls show Religious Zionism still garnering enough votes to be one of the largest Knesset parties, a dramatic rise for a party many politicians still consider beyond the pale.

A good chunk of this support is thanks to the collapse of Yamina, and the consequent absence of a more moderate right-wing, religious political option for some religious-Zionist voters.

Yamina’s entry into a government with Arab and left-wing parties tore the party asunder and alienated a substantial proportion of its voters, some of whom are now turning to Yamina’s former partner on the far right.

New Hope, led by nationalist Gideon Sa’ar, might have won some of those homeless voters, but the party instead leaned toward the center-left and allied with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev listen to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on June 22, 2021. (Flash90)

Beyond the political map itself, Herman noted that “chauvinistic nationalism” is on the rise in Israel in general.

The percentage of Jewish Israelis who believe Jews should have greater rights in Israel than non-Jews has risen from 25% in 2015 to 42% in 2021, according to data from the Israel Democracy Institute’s 2021 Democracy Index.

This trend is especially marked among the ultra-Orthodox, religious-Zionist and religiously traditional voters to whom Ben Gvir is appealing.

The party may also be riding a swell of support thanks to the riots and violence between Jews and Arabs that rocked many mixed cities in May 2021, radicalizing parts of the Israeli right-wing, including traditional Mizrachi voters who populate many of the worst-hit towns.

The riots, which included firebomb attacks on synagogues, homes and businesses,  likely gave a tailwind to Otzma’s narrative of an implacably hostile Arab population.

Ben Gvir was physically on the ground in Lod, Ramle, Acre, and other centers of unrest during the riots. He brought with him hundreds of activists from the far-right, Jewish supremacist Lehava organization, run by former Otzma Knesset candidate Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein, to conduct counter protests.

The inclusion of the Islamist Arab Ra’am party in the outgoing government may have been revolutionary, but it also gave Ben Gvir and others in the opposition ammunition to mercilessly attack the government for “relying on Arabs,” both in Ra’am and the left-wing Meretz party.

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir reacts during a press statement of United Arab List party MK Mansour Abbas, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Members of Ra’am and Meretz opposed the government’s attempt to renew the so-called citizenship law, which prevents Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens from gaining residency or citizenship in Israel. The MKs also helped block the renewal of a law guaranteeing Israeli civil rights for settlers in the West Bank, giving Ben Gvir the opportunity to claim that he had been correct about locking Arab parties out of the political process.

In addition, Ben Gvir has been able to denounce right-wing parties such as Yamina and New Hope for having cooperated with Arab MKs, likely attracting some of their former voters.

Aryeh Eldad, the former head of the defunct far-right Otzma LeYisrael party, Otzma Yehudit’s predecessor, conjectured that right-wing voters who voted for Yamina and New Hope felt betrayed and are seeking to vote for a party that they know will never cooperate with Arab factions.

(Right to left) Michael Ben Ari, Aryeh Eldad, Baruch Marzel and Aryeh King introduce their new political party 'Power to Israel' at a press conference in Jerusalem. November 13 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
(Right to left) Michael Ben Ari, Aryeh Eldad, Baruch Marzel and Aryeh King introduce their new political party ‘Power to Israel’ at a press conference in Jerusalem. November 13, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Likud has attempted to hide its own dalliance with Ra’am — Netanyahu tried to woo the party after the 2021 election — but Eldad said voters would remember, and some Likud supporters could switch to Religious Zionism because of it.

Thanks, Netanyahu

Just as Netanyahu’s talks with Ra’am normalized allying with the party, allowing Bennett and Prime Minister Yair Lapid to court the Islamists, the former prime minister may have also paved the way for Ben Gvir’s rise.

‘Netanyahu made Ben Gvir mainstream, he gave him legitimacy’

In 2019, ahead of the first of the recent spate of five elections, Netanyahu worked tirelessly to bring the established religious-Zionist parties into a political union with Otzma, who even those hard-right parties had previously shunned. Netanyahu feared that right-wing voters would cast ballots for Ben Gvir, but because he stood little chance of crossing the threshold to enter the Knesset, those votes would end up in the wastebasket instead of bolstering the political right.

At the time, Netanyahu promised the Jewish Home party two ministerial positions and reserved a spot on its electoral slate for a Jewish Home candidate.

Left photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the Likud party’s election rally in Ramat Gan on February 29, 2020; Right photo: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90; Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Netanyahu made Ben Gvir mainstream, he gave him legitimacy, this was a very important step,” said Hellinger.

He also drew harsh criticism, including from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which called the merger “reprehensible.”

Netanyahu made the same kind of intervention in subsequent elections and according to Hebrew media reports, has of late reprised his role as matchmaker between Smotrich and Ben Gvir amid tensions between the two.

In February 2021, after his latest intervention on behalf of Otzma, Netanyahu insisted that although he would have him in his coalition, Ben Gvir was “not fit” to be a minister.

But with a potential 13 seats to Ben Gvir’s name, voters in the upcoming election may disagree.

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