Itamar Ben-Gvir: How is Israel's far-right agitator gaining strength?

No. 24 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Israel's far-right agitator, Otzma Yehudit head MK Itamar Ben-Gvir.

 Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's far-right agitator. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's far-right agitator.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir is campaigning on the image that he has become more moderate than in the past. Appearances though can be deceiving. 

Ben-Gvir was a follower of extremist Meir Kahane, whose party Kach was outlawed and deemed a terror organization. In 1995, a few weeks before the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a teenage Ben-Gvir appeared on television brandishing a Cadillac emblem that had been broken off of the hood of Rabin’s government car and declared, “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too.” 

“We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir about then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, weeks before he was assassinated

He famously had a framed picture of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, hung in his living room, but he claims that he recently took it down.

Ben-Gvir was indicted 46 times and convicted eight times, including for rioting, vandalism, incitement to racism, and support for a terror organization. According to Israeli law, a person may serve as an MK, minister and even prime minister despite prior convictions. However, the law states that a person may not run if he or she “incites racism.” A number of groups appealed Ben-Gvir’s candidacy before the April 2019 elections on these grounds, but the High Court of Justice struck down the appeal after reaching the conclusion that he no longer does so.

 MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives to open his office in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, February 13, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives to open his office in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, February 13, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

As a lawyer, Ben-Gvir represented a series of far-right Jewish activists suspected of terrorism and hate crimes. He is the go-to man when it comes to Jewish extremists facing legal proceedings and is also the lawyer of Lehava, an openly racist organization that recruits youth who often come from troubled backgrounds, in order to protest marriages between Jews and Arabs.

Itamar Ben-Gvir's Israeli political career

He was elected to the Knesset in 2021 as part of the Religious Zionist party list. He has constantly accused left-wing Jewish MKs of being traitors and Arab MKs of being terrorists, and has had to be physically removed from the Knesset plenum. He was also involved in a scuffle last October with MK Ayman Odeh (Joint List). In another incident, he pulled out a pistol and threatened two security guards, who were Arab as well.

Ben-Gvir stresses that he no longer represents Kach but strongly supports deporting people who are “against the State of Israel or IDF soldiers,” such as members of the Joint List, and introducing the death penalty for terrorists convicted of murdering Jews.

Ben-Gvir believes that one day there can be peace with the Palestinians – but that it should essentially be a one-state solution, with a government agency to “encourage” Arabs who do not accept Israel as a Jewish state to emigrate from the country. That this would amount to apartheid – as it will involve a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority – does not bother him in the slightest.

AND THIS IS the reason he is on this list and his popularity keeps rising. A recent poll indicated that the Religious Zionist Party with which he merged his Otzma Yehudit party, would receive 13 mandates in the November election. His faction will have five spots on the party’s top 10.

While his views oftentimes amount to racism, he is a media phenomenon, providing ongoing sound-bites, quarrels and controversy wherever he goes. He often shows up at the site of terrorist attacks soon after they occur. Several times, during periods of heightened security threats, he has purposely visited the Temple Mount in order to stoke tensions. And he is mostly felt by setting the political tone within the Knesset and gaining for himself a standing that few others have today on the Israeli political landscape even if it comes with negative consequences. 

The dynamic has observers straining to identify precedents. When else, anywhere, has an openly and proudly racist candidate with a criminal record of supporting a terrorist group seized so much influence?

“I’ve been trying to think of analogies and I think David Duke is one who comes to mind. But he’s going to win a seat which David Duke never did, and he’s being pushed to do so and facilitated very openly and very personally by the former prime minister and the current head of the opposition.”

Natan Sachs on Itamar Ben-Gvir

“I’ve been trying to think of analogies and I think David Duke is one who comes to mind,” said Natan Sachs, an Israeli-American who directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, referring to the racist and antisemitic leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States who unsuccessfully ran for governor in Louisiana in 1991.

“But he’s going to win a seat which David Duke never did, and he’s being pushed to do so and facilitated very openly and very personally by the former prime minister and the current head of the opposition,” he added. “This is a watershed moment for Israel.”

During the riots in mixed Israeli-Arab cities during the 2021 Operation Guardian of the Walls, Israel’s police commissioner reportedly said that Ben-Gvir was responsible for the violence, after appearing at flash points at Damascus Gate, Sheikh Jarrah and Acre.

But Ben-Gvir insists that he is on the right path.

“I joined the Kach movement at age 16-17, and since then it has been outlawed – unfortunately, by the way, in an illegal step,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “But now I am 46. It’s not that I look today at Rabbi Kahane and think that he was evil. He fought for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, he fought in the Jewish Defense League against antisemitism. I see those as being very positive. 

“But today I don’t generalize about all the Arabs or say that they are all the same. Those who are loyal, ahalan vesahalan [welcome],” he said. “I have no problem with those who accept that here is a country called Israel and want to live in peace. My problem is with those who throw firebombs and throw stones; with them I am at war.”

The facts don’t necessarily support his turn away from Kahane, and the turn may be an election ploy to cultivate a more rounded image. Less than a year ago, in October 2021, Ben-Gvir spoke at a memorial marking 31 years since Kahane was murdered. The stage had large “Kahane was right” posters behind it, and Ben-Gvir began his speech by hailing the “heroes of Israel,” Michael Ben-Ari, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein, all of whom are staunch Kahanists to this day.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was crucial in getting Ben Gvir to merge with Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionist Party. It was his way of ensuring that votes within his right-wing bloc do not go to waste. 

Asked why he thinks he is so popular, Ben-Gvir said, “It is mainly the message, the situation that today Am Yisrael feels that there is a real danger to their fate and future. Jews are afraid to go to the Negev, some are even afraid to go to the Western Wall.” He maintains that he is the one who is most identified with the fight against this situation.

His motivation was faith, he said. “Faith in the righteousness of my path, faith in this nation, in this land, and mostly in God. I pray every week at the Cave of the Patriarchs [in Hebron] and do not forget where I came from and where I am going,” he said. 

Ben-Gvir is seen by many on the center-left as a threat to Israel’s democratic character, yet his popularity and influence are undisputed.

But will Israel indeed become a safer place with Ben-Gvir in government? Come November, we might have an answer.