KIRYAT ARBA, West Bank — Religious Zionism party candidate Itamar Ben Gvir arrived at his home settlement’s polling station on the morning of Tuesday’s election looking relatively relaxed.
After failing to enter the Knesset in three elections over the past two years, Ben Gvir now sits near the top of a faction that polls have consistently predicted will cross the electoral threshold with four or five seats.
Ben Gvir, Religious Zionism’s No. 3 candidate, was not shy about explaining why that is the case. “When you have the support of the prime minister, that has significance,” he told The Times of Israel as he waited in line to vote at a Kiryat Arba school for religious girls.
Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played an instrumental role in bringing together the three far-right factions that make up the Religious Zionism party.
After the faction’s chairman, Bezalel Smotrich, split away from the more popular Yamina party led by Naftali Bennett in January, Netanyahu worked urgently to convince the former to merge with additional likeminded parties in order to ensure he would cross the threshold.
The premier counts Religious Zionism among the “natural partners” that he says he’ll rely on to form the next government — along with the ultra-Orthodox factions. Thus, Netanyahu has argued that he cannot afford any of those parties failing to make it into the Knesset.
This has meant pushing Smotrich to join forces, not only with Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party of self-described disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, but also with the unabashedly anti-LGBT Noam party.
Netanyahu’s efforts to ensure Religious Zionism’s entry into the Knesset have been lambasted by opponents who say the premier is willing to cross all red lines in order to remain in power. But the prime minister argues that Religious Zionism is no less legitimate than the hardline parties on the other side of the political spectrum, while adding that he does not plan to offer a ministerial post to Ben Gvir.
On election day, Ben Gvir did not appear to take offense at the slight, crediting the prime minister (“and God”) for shoring up his next job — member of Knesset.
Asked if Netanyahu had helped normalize his party in the Israeli political arena after decades of Kahanists being roundly viewed as beyond the pale, Ben Gvir was dismissive. “That’s a left-wing question,” he said, barely dignifying it with a response.
Despite being No. 3 on the Religious Zionism list, Ben Gvir rivals Smotrich as the party’s most recognizable face. He is featured regularly in campaign ads of various centrist and left-wing parties as they warn their supporters that he will receive a senior position in the next government if they don’t show up to vote for the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
“The left knows that as opposed to all of the other politicians, I do what I say I will, and that scares them,” he said. “Their fear is my dream.”
While Netanyahu has vowed not to give Ben Gvir a cabinet post, the Religious Zionism candidate noted that the premier will have to rely on him to form a government and therefore won’t be in a position to dismiss his demands outright.
As such, he plans to insist on being appointed defense minister of the Negev and the Galilee. Such a position does not exist, but creating it is essential for protecting the residents of outlying areas who have been suffering from an unaddressed uptick in Arab crime, Ben Gvir asserted.
He shared the demand with a dozen cheering party activists upon arriving at a polling station in the southern town of Ofakim. “Hey ho, look who’s here, the next defense minister of the Negev and the Galilee!” they chanted.
A blushing Ben Gvir told the young supporters that they’d have to work on shortening the slogan.
While he might be considered a fringe candidate, Ben Gvir was given a hero’s welcome at every polling station he visited Tuesday morning.
Orthodox voters with long beards and semi-automatic rifles strapped behind their backs stopped the Otzma Yehudit candidate outside the Kiryat Arba polling station to thank him for running.
In Beersheba, a Likud party activist jumped out of her chair when Ben Gvir pulled up in order to snap a selfie with the candidate.
At another ballot station in the city, he was stopped by a man in a torn shirt. “My whole life I voted Likud. I’m currently in mourning, but I came to meet and vote for you,” he told a visibly touched Ben Gvir.
While other party leaders made stops at the Western Wall for a last-minute Hail Mary, Ben Gvir chose to visit the Tomb of the Moroccan Sephardic rabbi and kabbalist Baba Sali in Netivot to recite an election day prayer. There, he was greeted by several worshipers who asked the Religious Zionism candidate to bless them.
“May God watch over you and protect you… and bring us a right-wing government,” he muttered, seemingly not used to receiving such requests.
Standing next to the shrine, a young father approached Ben Gvir with a pair of scissors and asked the politician if he’d be willing to snap the first lock of his 3-year-old child’s hair.
Ben Gvir has come a long way since his salad days.
In his teens, Ben Gvir led the youth wing of Kahane’s Kach movement, which was outlawed in Israel in the 1990s and subsequently designated a terror organization by the US State Department. After years in court as a defendant due to his far-right activism, Ben Gvir decided he’d like to practice law rather than break it and has since become one of the most sought-after attorneys for ultra-nationalist youth accused of carrying out hate attacks against Palestinians along with IDF soldiers accused of using excessive force.
Ben Gvir now vows to protect such individuals from the Knesset, claiming Tuesday that Israeli troops are currently afraid to defend themselves against stone and Molotov cocktail-wielding due to fears of legal repercussions.
“I will have the back of every soldier, regardless of whether he has a kippa on his head or not,” he said in Netivot.
“But you need to get rid of the Arabs too!” chimed in an older man as Ben Gvir was streaming on Facebook Live.
“No, no. Only the disloyal ones. Those who are loyal to the country, ahlan wa sahlan,” the candidate said, using an Arabic greeting.
Despite his relatively radical views, Ben Gvir’s demeanor is anything but. He stopped and greeted several older women outside polling stations who asked for money and urged those heckling left-wing party activists to respect those with political differences.
For the first time, Ben Gvir finds himself on a party slate in which he is not widely viewed as the most extremist element. Thanks to Noam, whose candidates have criticized Netanyahu for appointing an openly gay minister, Ben Gvir is seen as relatively mainstream in the Religious Zionism party.
“I’ve always said we were centrists,” joked the candidate, who until recently hung a picture of the Hebron massacre perpetrator Baruch Goldstein in his living room.
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel