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Op-ed

With rise of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, Israel risks a catastrophic lurch to extremism

Both will be ministers if Netanyahu wins the elections; their agendas would undo foundational principles and reverse core achievements, weakening Israel within and without

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Far-right lawmaker and leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party Itamar Ben Gvir during a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon on October 25, 2022, ahead of the November 1 general elections. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)
Far-right lawmaker and leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party Itamar Ben Gvir during a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon on October 25, 2022, ahead of the November 1 general elections. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

In November 1947, the United Nations endorsed the revival of the historic Jewish state, to be established alongside a new state for the Arab residents of the disputed holy land. Deeply unhappy with the division of territory, Israel’s pre-state leaders nonetheless accepted the parameters; the Arab world did not. Israel was born into a war intended to destroy it. Near-miraculously, it survived, has resisted relentless subsequent efforts to wipe it out, and now thrives as a Jewish-majority democracy,  an innovation powerhouse, capable of defending itself from its enemies.

On November 1, 2022, 75 years later, however, modern Israel’s electorate, dragged to the right by endless Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism, and battered politically by five general elections in less than four years, seems quite likely to further weaken its strained internal harmony, dilute its democracy, risk alienating its essential international allies, and bring succor to those enemies.

Next week’s elections are impossible to accurately predict, no matter how ostensibly definitive the pollsters’ findings. But the outgoing, short-lived, unprecedentedly diverse coalition headed by Yair Lapid is consistently lagging behind the Benjamin Netanyahu-led bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties in the surveys. Several parties in the coalition bloc are at risk of falling below the 3.25% Knesset threshold. And Netanyahu’s Likud and its core allies are polling on the cusp of a majority.

Netanyahu and his senior party colleagues have become more hawkish in recent years. Netanyahu sought to unilaterally annex 30 percent of biblical Judea and Samaria in 2020, erroneously believing the Trump administration would back him, and has long since stopped advocating even a conditional two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians — the very framework that Israel’s founding leaders accepted and those who spoke for the Palestinians firmly rejected in 1947. Much of the Likud Knesset slate is still more hawkish on this than its chairman.

But until he was ousted after 12 consecutive years in power last year, Netanyahu generally managed to steer a relatively circumspect ship of state — going head-to-head with the Obama administration over how to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons program but opting, for example, to set aside his partial West Bank annexation plan in favor of the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

In this election campaign, however, closing in on a prime ministerial comeback which he hopes will also extricate him from his corruption trial, he has advanced, partnered with, and empowered radical politicians who are determined to prevent any such strategic agility and wisdom.

MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally of their Religious Zionism party in the southern city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)

Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the high-flying Religious Zionism alliance brokered by Netanyahu, last week announced plans to render Israel’s judiciary subservient to its political majority. No less.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of the Otzma Yehudit party, rising star of this election campaign, and the No. 2 to Smotrich on the Religious Zionism list of candidates, seeks to annex the entire West Bank without affording its Arab residents voting rights and encourage “disloyal” Arab citizens to leave, according to his party’s most recent political manifesto.

Ben Gvir used to advocate for the expulsion of all Arab Israelis. He claims to have toned down his positions over the years. He also knows that he would otherwise have been banned from running for election — as was Otzma Yehudit’s former leader Michael Ben-Ari, for incitement to racism, in 2019, and the Kach party led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, of whom Ben Gvir is a devotee, back in 1988.

Screen capture of video from 2018 showing Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaking to activists and supporters of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. (Twitter screen capture)

Months before last year’s elections, in which he narrowly failed to retain power, Netanyahu declared in a television interview that Ben Gvir would be a member of his coalition but was “not fit” for ministerial office. In the last few days, having seen Religious Zionism rising in the polls to around 14 seats, some of them apparently coming at the expense of his own Likud, Netanyahu, recognizing that he has no remote prospect of a government without Ben Gvir, has put aside that final safeguard.

Ben Gvir, who seeks an enlarged sovereign Israel in which millions of Palestinians would be denied anything close to equality, certainly can and absolutely will be a cabinet minister, Netanyahu has declared several times this week and last.

Smotrich has previously held ministerial office under Netanyahu, but has now conditioned joining a coalition on the acceptance of his proposals for legal “reform.” Smotrich, too, nonetheless, Netanyahu has stated, will be a minister if his comeback is successful.

No longer marginal

If Smotrich and Ben Gvir, with ambitions that would destroy Israeli democracy and, in Ben Gvir’s case, invite the hitherto-unfounded allegation of apartheid, remained relatively marginal and toothless figures, their goals would be profoundly troubling.

But at a conservative estimate, their party is heading for at least a tenth of the 120-seats in the Knesset, and they could well prove a substantial and powerful element of Israel’s next government. National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, outflanked by Netanyahu when he partnered him in 2020, is adamant that there will be no second time — that he won’t save Netanyahu from the extremists the Likud leader has legitimized.

Almost the entire Likud Knesset slate would contentedly acquiesce to a coalition with Religious Zionism; his party is now constructed almost entirely in Netanyahu’s own image. The two ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — would welcome such a coalition, their return to government, and eventual victory in their battle against mandatory military/national service for their constituents.

And Smotrich and Ben Gvir have made clear that they would not settle for marginal ministerial roles. There has been talk of the public security ministry and the interior ministry, maybe justice, perhaps even defense.

Ultimately, Smotrich has said in the past, he seeks an Israeli theocracy. For now, he only wants a coalition majority on the panel that chooses judges, wide-ranging immunity from prosecution for politicians, no viable mechanism for judges to strike down anti-democratic legislation, and the abolition of the “fraud and breach of trust” charge that is common to all three of the cases for which Netanyahu is on trial.

Ben Gvir, meanwhile, will be advocating for overt Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, and for an easing of the military’s open-fire rules. “They’re throwing rocks at us… Shoot them,” he urged the Border Police officers who were protecting him in East Jerusalem’s contested Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood when he visited two weeks ago, as he brandished his own gun.

Israel, ‘unrecognizable’

This kind of Netanyahu-led coalition, the current justice minister, Gideon Sa’ar, said on Sunday, “will take apart the State of Israel and all of its state institutions.”

Sa’ar, a former leading Likud MK, minister and cabinet secretary under Netanyahu who bolted the party and set up his own two years ago specifically to oppose his former leader, and who is allied with Gantz in these elections, cautioned: “The State of Israel that we have known for 74 years will be unrecognizable.”

Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) and New Hope leader Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar announce a merger of their parties, July 10, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On a visit to the United States this week, President Isaac Herzog preemptively pleaded with Israel’s most important ally, while being carefully nonspecific, not to abandon Israel if a Netanyahu-Smotrich-Ben Gvir government comes to power.

“You have elections and midterms, we have elections in Israel next week. I think one thing should transcend both — the friendship and close bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and it is a value that we must all cherish and work for. May I also add we must respect each other’s democracies,” Herzog told Jewish leaders on Tuesday.

“There will be of course discussions about the outcome,” he went on. But “first and foremost, the underlying rule should be ‘we honor and respect democracy.’”

The trouble is that the declared political agendas of Smotrich and Ben Gvir do not honor and respect Israeli democracy. And their ascent to positions of power would inevitably harm Israel’s ties with the United States — even Donald Trump, remember, inclined to believe, long before Ben Gvir had begun his political rise, that Netanyahu “doesn’t want peace” — and with many more of its most important allies, while delighting and strengthening its legions of critics.

What would become of those Abraham Accords, and our carefully tended relations with Egypt and Jordan, with a government bound or inclined to Ben Gvir’s radical agenda? (The UAE has already alerted Netanyahu to its concerns.) Ben Gvir’s stated plans for Palestinians and Arab Israelis would alienate Israel’s supporters, and contradict the arguments they have hitherto accurately made in Israel’s defense, while supplying fuel for the flames of the pernicious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

International public support would ebb, in turn weakening the backing Israel receives from so many nations — including in vital diplomatic forums, and in terms of crucial military support.

Not a vacuum

One in 10 or more Israelis are not about to vote for Smotrich and Ben Gvir in a vacuum. The Second Intifada onslaught of suicide bombers destroyed mainstream Israel’s faith in the possibility of peacemaking with the Palestinians, and ongoing terrorism, the rise of Hamas in Gaza, and Mahmoud Abbas’s rejectionism have done nothing to change that.

May 2021’s widespread violence in mixed Arab-Jewish cities, and the slow, inadequate police response, also likely bolstered support for the far-right. (Ben Gvir, who appeared repeatedly at scenes of confrontation, as he has continued to do in East Jerusalem, was reportedly accused by the police commissioner of fanning the flames.) The anti-Zionist incitement of many Arab Knesset members — Hadash MK Aida Touma-Suleiman this week eulogized Nablus Lion’s Den terrorists killed in an IDF raid as “martyrs” of the “resistance” — will have done more of the same.

Meantime, Smotrich and especially Ben Gvir make for compelling champions of the far-right, not so different to the increasingly hawkish Likud under its 73-year-old leader, but younger and more energetic, triumphalist and bereft of self-doubt, offering simplistic, populist panaceas. They’re winning support, too, from some in the ultra-Orthodox community, especially the Ashkenazi community, with its elderly and charisma-free leadership.

More widely, there may be a generational factor here as well. Israel’s founding fathers have largely died out. Members of my generation, often alive only because our parents fled or survived the Nazis or hostile North African and Middle Eastern regimes, have entered middle age. These are generations that played a direct role in Israel’s establishment and survival over the decades against existential odds, some of whom dreamed of Israel and deeply recognized the tragedy of Israel’s not being here 80 years ago. Generations that have never taken this country for granted, and that have seen it gradually forge a foothold, globally and even in parts of this region, via a combination of resilience, creativity, skilled leadership and, especially, military strength.

Many younger Israelis, by definition, have a fresher understanding of this country. They may not take it for granted, and many are crucial to its defense. But a significant number, it seems, are preparing to empower a radically irresponsible party — and in Ben Gvir’s case, a dangerous provocateur who delightedly foments internal friction — that would reverse some of Israel’s core regional and international achievements.

A composite image of Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid leading their respective Likud and Yesh Atid faction meetings at the Knesset, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Seventy-five years after Israel was belatedly relegitimized by the international community, the rise of Smotrich and Ben Gvir to potential positions of significant power, under Netanyahu’s aegis, risks undoing the principles we stood for then and largely still stand for, risks weakening ourselves and our international viability, with a catastrophic, self-defeating lurch to the political extremes.

I apologize if parts of this column sounded a little familiar. This is indeed the third time I’ve returned to the subject in recent weeks. I’m trying to sound the alarm. I’m urging my fellow Israelis, next Tuesday, November 1, to ask themselves what their vote means for the well-being of this country, its own values and goals, and its place among the nations.

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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