Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir vowed to “reassert ownership” of the country late Tuesday night in his address to supporters soon after the release of exit polls that showed significant gains for his party and indicated the pro-Netanyahu bloc would be able to form a majority coalition.
Hailed by supporters as “the next prime minister,” he demurred: “I’m 46,” he said. “Not yet prime minister.”
Exit polls on all three major TV networks indicated that his Otzma Yehudit party’s joint slate with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party won between 14 and 15 seats.
With one of the surveys predicting a narrow, 61-seat majority for the Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and the other two polls giving the right-wing, religious bloc a more comfortable 62 seats, the results would be some of the best Otzma Yehudit supporters could have asked for if proven accurate.
With the ballot tally still in its early stages, Ben Gvir clarified that it was too early to know whether the bloc of right-wing, religious parties had secured a majority.
“I remember the celebrations in the previous elections that ended with a government with Ra’am,” he said as the crowd of hundreds at Jerusalem’s Vert Hotel ballroom booed the reference to the Islamist party that formed the final piece of the diverse coalition that fell apart in June after one year.
Still, he sought to strike a relatively conciliatory tone during parts of his speech: “I want to say to those who did not vote for me: We’re all brothers,” Ben Gvir declared at his Otzma Yehudit subfaction’s headquarters in Jerusalem.
Speaking two hours after the exit polls’ release, Ben Gvir maintained that his merger with Smotrich managed to cater to a diverse array of Jewish voters. “We represent everyone: Secular and religious, Haredi and traditional, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.”
“They all want real change,” Ben Gvir said to cheers, and “a leadership that will preserve the Land of Israel… and settle Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its Biblical names.
Vowing to “act against petrol bomb and stone throwers,” he noted that he would fight to differentiate between Zionists and those who work “to undermine our existence here,” to which the crowd responded with chants of “Death to terrorists!”
“The time has come for our children to be able to walk safely in the streets,” Ben Gvir continued. “The time has come for us to reassert ownership of this state.”
The far-right MK also made a point of thanking his former political partner Benzie Gopstein, the head of the racist and homophobic Lehava organization.
The two sparred briefly during the most recent campaign, with Gopstein and other members of Otzma Yehudit’s original leadership accusing Ben Gvir of shying away from the values on which the party was founded.
“We don’t agree on everything, but he’s my friend,” Ben Gvir said, as Gopstein nodded from the back of the room.
Gopstein was banned from running for the Knesset in 2020. His Lehava organization opposes intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, as well as LGBTQ rights, and tries to stifle any public activity by non-Jews in Israel, including coexistence events.
The faction headquarters erupted in excitement upon the release of the exit polls at 10 p.m., which indicated the party would be making significant gains.
Jewish party music began blasting the moment the polls were shown on the projector screen of the Vert Hotel ballroom, and over one hundred young men begin dancing and waving Israeli flags. About a dozen of their female peers were scattered toward the back of the ballroom and clapped along.
Like in the 2021 election when Ra’am managed to cross the electoral threshold after failing to do so in the exit polls, a similar scenario could again unfold on Wednesday. At least one Arab party, Balad, hovered just below the electoral threshold, and a second or third Arab party making it into the Knesset along with Ra’am could tip the scale back toward a split between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs.
Still, there was reason for Otzma Yehudit to be highly optimistic: The national voter turnout on Tuesday was 71.3 percent — the highest since 2015, which bodes poorly for the anti-Netanyahu bloc, due to its large number of small parties that could fall below the electoral threshold.
Tuesday’s race was the second consecutive election in which Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and Avi Maoz’s Noam ran together in a united alliance. This time though, Ben Gvir and his faction received more prominent posts in line with the Otzma Yehudit chairman’s skyrocketing popularity.
In the previous election, Religious Zionism won seven seats, with five of those going to Smotrich’s camp along with one for Ben Gvir and one for Maoz. If the exit polls prove broadly accurate, the party will have some five or six Otzma Yehudit representatives in the Knesset and about seven from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism flank, with Maoz again as the lone representative of the anti-LGBTQ Noam faction.
This time though, the far-right lawmakers are more likely to receive senior government posts, with Netanyahu assuring voters over the past week that Religious Zionism would be an integral part of his coalition.
Days before the election, Ben Gvir said he would demand the public security portfolio in order to implement reforms in the police that would allow for a harder hand against Arab Israeli and Palestinian protesters, along with suspects in the Negev region where crime rates are high.
Netanyahu appeared to respond warmly to the demand while asserting that the more senior ministerial posts — including the foreign ministry, defense and finance — would be reserved for his Likud party.
Smotrich began publishing campaign ads last month that highlighted his security credentials in what was seen as the start of a bid for the post of defense minister.
Smotrich also campaigned on instituting legal reforms that could lead to the cancellation of Netanyahu’s criminal trial. They included scrapping the charges of fraud and breach of trust — counts the ex-premier is charged with in all of the cases against him.
In his own address to Religious Zionism supporters after the polls closed, Smotrich said: “Religious Zionism made history — a party backed by lovers of the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, is the third-biggest in Israel.”
Added Smotrich: “We managed to bring down the bad [outgoing] government, and with God’s help we’ll set up a Jewish, nationalist, Zionist government.”
While a self-described disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir maintains that he has softened his views in recent years and has also removed from his living room a photo of Baruch Goldstein, the gunman who carried out the 1994 massacre at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in which 29 Palestinians were killed.
Ben Gvir campaigned on hardline policies such as enacting the death penalty for terrorists, expelling “disloyal” Arab Israeli citizens and changing the rules of engagement for Israeli security forces to allow them to more easily shoot-to-kill Palestinian suspects.
The proposals appeared to resonate with large swaths of the increasingly right-wing public and many Religious Zionism voters characterized their votes as ones for “Ben Gvir” even though Smotrich is chairman of the party.
Ben Gvir and Smotrich have been careful to describe their partnership as a “technical” one. They maintained separate campaign apparatuses and even held separate exit poll viewing parties on Tuesday night. Ben Gvir appealed to a more diverse electorate of right-wing, though not necessarily Orthodox voters, while Smotrich’s base includes more the mainstream and traditional parts of the national religious camp. The latter’s support is seen as having somewhat less to do with the lawmaker in particular and more with the party he stands for.
Otzma Yehudit, on the other hand, relies heavily on the popularity of Ben Gvir, who was once seen as beyond the pale. Netanyahu in the previous election declared he was unfit for a ministerial post.
Yonatan Yosef, a right-wing activist who was among the hundreds celebrating at the Vert Hotel, credited Religious Zionism’s apparent strong performance to Ben Gvir’s actions on behalf of Jewish residents in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah over the past year.
Ben Gvir opened a makeshift office in the flashpoint neighborhood where nationalist Jews are seeking to move in place of Palestinians. He several times refused to leave the area until police guaranteed greater protections for Sheikh Jarrah’s Jewish residents.
“He went out of his comfort zone… and has received a hug from the public in return,” said Yosef.
“There’s a real feeling of hope,” said Tomer Cohen, a 46-year-old Otzma Yehudit supporter.
“Last time, we only received one representative in the Knesset. Now we’ll have at least five,” he said.
As Cohen spoke, a techno version of the vengeance song “Zachreini Na” based on a Biblical verse blasted in the background, with Otzma Yehudit activists changing the words to call for “revenge on Palestine.”