Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020.

Why is Netanyahu trying (again) to push Kahanists into the Knesset?

The PM is courting censure by helping Israel’s most extremist faction, and its leader isn’t even a reliable ally. But the move could pay off when it’s time to build a coalition

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Main image by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested hours of effort over the last two weeks in ensuring that Otzma Yehudit, Israel’s most extremist right-wing faction — at least, the most extremist faction not actually outlawed on grounds of racism or support for terrorism — succeeds in getting elected to the next Knesset.

Betzalel Smotrich’s right-wing Religious Zionism faction has been polling below the 3.25-percent electoral threshold. If Smotrich fails to clear that line, as many as three Knesset seats that would have gone to the pro-Netanyahu right could be lost.

Facing a race that polls suggest may be very close indeed, Netanyahu has looked for ways to bolster Smotrich’s election showing.

His solution: Encourage Smotrich to unify his slate with that of the extremist Otzma Yehudit. Each has polled recently at slightly above the 2% mark. A union, Netanyahu hopes, might push both over the threshold, adding four or even five seats to the right-wing camp in the 24th Knesset.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu’s eagerness for the union, including promises of cabinet posts and the assurance to Smotrich that he will be able to appoint one lawmaker to Likud’s slate – compensating for a seat lost to Otzma Yehudit on his own list – did the job.

Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir signed a shared slate agreement on Wednesday.

The effort makes perfect sense in terms of electoral math. But as many have already noted, there’s a grotesque moral compromise underlying it all

The effort makes perfect sense in terms of electoral math. But as many have already noted following Netanyahu’s past efforts to help Otzma Yehudit win seats in parliament, there’s a grotesque moral compromise underlying it all, one Netanyahu’s opponents and supporters alike, including Likud lawmakers, all acknowledged on Thursday.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid didn’t mince words: “The fact that Netanyahu is doing everything to push Kahanists and terror supporters who glorify Baruch Goldstein into the Knesset is a national disgrace. He has no shame,” he tweeted.

Likud Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, in an interview with Israel Radio Thursday, prefaced his defense of Netanyahu’s efforts to “unite all the forces” of the right with, “of course, Itamar Ben Gvir’s path isn’t my path and his views aren’t my views.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2019, when Netanyahu engineered a similar deal to try to get Otzma Yehudit into the Knesset, even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee broke from its typical aversion from commenting on internal Israeli politics, announcing that it has “a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”

Poster of a terrorist

It’s hard to exaggerate the extremism of Ben Gvir’s views, past and present.

In his teens, Ben Gvir led the youth wing of the racist Kach movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane until it was outlawed following the 1994 massacre by Kach activist Baruch Goldstein of 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

That record of extremist activism, including his leadership role in Kach at an early age, led the IDF to reject him for military service.

Illustrative: Otzma Yehudit candidate Michael Ben-Ari (C) and followers of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and the outlawed ‘Kach’ Israeli political party, pray at Kahane’s grave in Jerusalem on October 26, 2010, marking the 20th anniversary of his murder by an Arab gunman in New York. (Flash 90)

In the run-up to the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the young Ben Gvir was among the most vociferous activists orchestrating attacks on Rabin’s motorcade, calling the prime minister a “traitor” and threatening him openly. He helped organize a protest-turned-attack on Rabin’s motorcade in 1995 in which the car’s emblem was ripped off by the assailants.

As he told a Channel 1 news crew at the time, holding the emblem in front of the camera: “People managed to take this emblem off the car. The emblem is a symbol that symbolizes that just as we could get to this emblem, we can get to Rabin.”

A short time after the broadcast, Rabin was assassinated by a far-right Jewish activist opposed to his policies.

The photo of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein hung in the home of Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

But Ben Gvir’s extremism didn’t end in the mid-1990s. Ahead of the March 2020 election, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett vetoed Ben Gvir’s inclusion in his right-wing slate. One reason cited by Bennett: Ben Gvir had a portrait of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room.

Ben Gvir reportedly took down the portrait in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Bennett. It is not clear if the portrait was returned to his living room wall after the election.

Black sheep

Yet Ben Gvir poses another problem for Netanyahu. Beyond the moral and public-relations costs of openly working to legitimize and enhance Ben Gvir’s extremist politics, there’s the simple fact that Ben Gvir can’t be trusted to reciprocate the favor.

Asked by the religious-right Srugim website on Thursday about his future membership in a Netanyahu-led coalition, Ben Gvir sounded less than grateful for Netanyahu’s help. Netanyahu, he explained “always has excuses” for failing to establish a “true right-wing government.”

“Will you recommend Netanyahu for prime minister?” Srugim’s Bentzi Rubin asked.

Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir (L) argues with Arab Israeli Knesset candidate Ata Abu Madighem after a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

“I’ll recommend whoever can form a right-wing government,” he replied.

Likud doesn’t want to be painted with the Ben Gvir brush, and every defender of Likud on Thursday took the same line. To paraphrase: “Ben Gvir is terrible, sure, but leftists willing to sit with Balad MKs who support Palestinian terrorists don’t have a right to criticize.”

As historian and right-wing pro-Netanyahu pundit Gadi Taub put it, “I don’t have any good words to say about Itamar Ben Gvir, but those now publicly fainting over their moral horror at racism, while explicit anti-Jewish racism on the other side of the map appears to them forgivable, are themselves distinguishing between one kind of blood and another. They’ve lost the moral right in my view to publicly faint. Spare us your histrionics.”

Even Betzalel Smotrich himself is uncomfortable with the union and tried to avoid it until the last minute. Smotrich has sought to transform his far-right image into one of a competent mainstream leader and only agreed to hitch his horse to Otzma Yehudit when the polls showed that rebranding hadn’t worked.

Union of Right Wing Parties candidates (from L-R) Rafi Peretz, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich pose for a photo, on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy)

Smotrich “has worked hard to improve his public image,” noted Atara German, political analyst for the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon, on Thursday. “But his union with Ben Gvir sets him back.”

Tangled webs

Why, then, is Netanyahu sacrificing so much for so little? Why tie himself to extremists even the religious-right dislikes and his most avid supporters struggle to defend? Ben Gvir may carry Smotrich over the threshold, and then, without batting an eyelash, refuse to support a Netanyahu-led government if he believes it isn’t sufficiently right-wing.

Netanyahu may also be aiming for a bigger prize, a larger, broader coalition. And having Ben Gvir as a bogeyman could get him there

The simplest explanation is because even if Ben Gvir goes to the opposition, Netanyahu still has three reliable seats from Smotrich and whoever else he brings in. Seats don’t grow on trees and if Netanyahu wants to stay in power, he’ll need every one he can scrounge up.

But he may also be aiming for a bigger prize, a larger, broader coalition. And having Ben Gvir as a bogeyman could get him there.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. The sign behind him reads, “Kahane was right!” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s happened before, with Ben Gvir’s former boss, one-time MK and ex-Otzma Yehudit head Michael Ben Ari.

Ben Ari entered the Knesset in 2009 as the fourth-placed member of the four-seat National Union faction. He appointed Ben Gvir, a fellow Kahanist and activist, as his parliamentary aide.

MK Michael Ben-Ari yells at MK Hanin Zoabi 'Go to Syria' as she leaves the hall at the Supreme Court on Thursday (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-MK Michael Ben-Ari yells at MK Hanin Zoabi ‘Go to Syria’ as she leaves the hall at the Supreme Court (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following the February 2009 election, Netanyahu was given the nod by President Shimon Peres to try to form a coalition. The Israeli center-left, then represented by Kadima and Labor, announced they would not join it.

Netanyahu signed his first agreement with Yisrael Beytenu, his second with Shas, bringing his coalition to 53 seats. Netanyahu now had a path to a majority: Jewish Home would give him three more seats, and United Torah Judaism another five, for a razor-thin majority of 61 seats.

He then turned to Labor’s Ehud Barak, who led a 13-seat faction. As Laborites now remember it, Netanyahu’s case might be paraphrased thusly: “I have enough votes for a rightist-Haredi coalition, but I want a more balanced government. Join me, Ehud, so I can build a government not dependent on far-right National Union and its Kahanists.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak in 2012. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

It worked. Barak leaped at the chance, becoming Netanyahu’s defense minister and an avid early supporter of Netanyahu’s Iran policy. Netanyahu used Ben Ari to help make the case for Labor to join and “balance” his government. Barak in turn made that same case — the responsibility of the left to keep the Kahanists out of the halls of power — to convince Labor’s central committee to approve the party’s joining the coalition by a vote of 680 to 507.

Could that explain Netanyahu’s strange eagerness to get Kahanists elected to the 24th Knesset – Kahanists who won’t be loyal to him in return, and whose legitimation by him will be remembered by his many critics for a long time to come?

In 2009, a Kahanist got himself elected to the Knesset without Netanyahu’s help, but his very extremism proved a useful card in Netanyahu’s negotiating hand. Twelve years later, could the prime minister be trying to engineer a similarly narrow win dependent on extremists — as leverage to pressure centrists or even leftists to take their place and balance out his next government?

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