Israel Elections: Far-right ghosts of Ben-Gvir, Smotrich haunt Netanyahu

INSIDE POLITICS: Can the former prime minister keep avoiding a public alliance with Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich ahead of Israel's election?

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU visits Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market in the run up to next month’s election.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU visits Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market in the run up to next month’s election.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS)

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the rising firebrand of the far Right, share the limelight in the most notorious alliance of the upcoming elections.

Their names combined have turned into a code name in the anti-Netanyahu camp: “It’s either Bibi and Ben-Gvir – or Meretz/Labor/Benny Gantz.” Each campaign chants its own version of the slogan, channeling the liberal Center-Left nightmare scenario of a Netanyahu-led ultranationalist and ultrareligious victory on Election Day.

But all of the viral videos and posters attempting to highlight Netanyahu’s vile and radical partnership with Ben-Gvir suffer from one visual problem: There are hardly any photos or images of the two men together, leaving graphic designers with the sole option of cropping.

Over the past 3.5 years, Netanyahu has played a key role in fostering Ben-Gvir’s career and turning him from a far-right outcast to a political rock star. From one election to the next, Netanyahu effectively legitimized Ben-Gvir’s racist and violent past as well as his current behavior and positions, by manipulating and maneuvering the National-Religious political players to treat the former Kahane disciple as a proper and worthy partner in the game. Time and again, Netanyahu pressured the various factions to cooperate with Ben-Gvir and run in the elections together with his party, Otzma Yehudit, in technical blocs, and personally intervened in negotiations, on the pretext that only unification ensures that right-wing votes don’t go down the electoral threshold’s drain.

This time around, in late August, Netanyahu especially invited Ben-Gvir and his partner Bezalel Smotrich, on a Friday afternoon, to a neighbor’s villa in Caesarea, to negotiate and to sponsor their agreement on a joint run, which included a commitment to appoint Ben-Gvir to a cabinet position. The former prime minister has been regularly meeting Ben-Gvir since then, coordinating and synchronizing campaign messages and major moves. Nonetheless, none of these encounters has ever been visually documented or publicized, and only rare paparazzi have captured the two of them together.

Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market in the run up to next month’s election. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market in the run up to next month’s election. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

This week, Netanyahu’s attempts to avoid a shared spotlight with Ben-Gvir evolved into an embarrassing incident. The former premier refused to join Ben-Gvir on stage at Kfar Chabad on Monday night for the Second Hakafot, insisting that Ben-Gvir should first step down before he, Netanyahu, would mount the stage. But Ben-Gvir was loath to cooperate.

The incident immediately sparked waves, and brought Ben-Gvir once again to the talk show lineups, protesting his insult and spinning the debacle to his own political advantage. He cited one of Netanyahu’s confidants who supposedly told him the public snub had a political reason, as a joint appearance would have endangered Netanyahu’s alleged plans to form a coalition with Gantz after the elections. Netanyahu’s attempts to deny any visual boycott and to brush off the incident as a minor logistical misunderstanding were apparently too little, too late, to stop the never-ending Ben-Gvir spin machine. He and Smotrich reached a peak this week and are projected to get 12-13 seats, according to the latest polls.

Despite the Likud denials, Netanyahu’s double tango with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich has a clear and immediate electoral goal: the fight over two to three mandates of undecided voters, many of them former Yamina supporters, who are wavering between the Likud, Ayelet Shaked, and the Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar partnership. In the moderate and liberal National-Religious strongholds, the so-called soft-right and srugim (crocheted kippah) voters, many are queasy about the whitewashing of Ben-Gvir’s past of indictments and support for Jewish terrorism and oppose Smotrich’s radical agendas, especially on matters of religion and state. Netanyahu hopes to keep what’s out of sight out of mind, and by maintaining a visual distance he hopes to appeal to those swing voters.

Disassociation from Smotrich 

THE LIKUD also dissociated itself this week from Smotrich’s “law and justice” plans for far-reaching reforms in the judicial system and the criminal process, including a demand to cancel the felony of fraud and breach of trust, which could eventually lead to the cancellation of Netanyahu’s own trial.

Some of Netanyahu’s confidants have their own obstructionist judicial revolutions in mind, in the event that they acquire the 61-seat right-wing majority, but he has been silencing and rebuking them as well, toning down campaign messages and publicly disengaging from any proposal that could retroactively abort his own personal legal plight.

Instead, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir conveniently bear the radical messages, targeting their own audiences, while Netanyahu suits the softer electorate. Ben-Gvir’s spiking popularity is even considered a political asset, according to Likud sources, as he supposedly attracts marginal and disenfranchised supporters who otherwise wouldn’t bother to vote. Netanyahu hopes to micromanage and maximize the potential of the right-wing electorate by dissociating himself from his partner’s tunes – as well as photos.

In the final stretch of the campaign, tensions between Netanyahu and Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are likely to increase, as the traditional “cannibalism” act in which the big parties siphon support from the smaller players begins. By ensuring their joint technical bloc in advance, Netanyahu designed an ideal layout: With none of his allies in danger of falling under the electoral threshold, he is free to campaign against them and appeal to their voters.

“The Religious Zionist Party will be in our government anyway, but what we have to have is one big Likud.”

Benjamin Netanyahu

“The Religious Zionist Party will be in our government anyway, but what we have to have is one big Likud,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Amit Segal this week, adding that the big portfolios, the Finance and Defense ministries, will be headed by the Likud – precisely the two major portfolios Smotrich had suggested he might demand in coalition negotiations.

Netanyahu can continue to avoid visual acknowledgments of his alliance with Ben-Gvir up until November 1, but when election results come in, especially if they succeed to achieve the ultimate 61-seat majority, he will have to deal with the consequences of his sponsorship and commitments. The stronger Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are, the higher their demands, as well as the limits and constraints on Netanyahu’s ability to backtrack on his promises to include Ben-Gvir as a full member of the government.

In the upcoming days the Likud will try to shrink his popularity and restore two to three seats of its traditional supporters, while minimizing his future bargaining positions.

The question is which version of Netanyahu will appear after the elections: the old, traditional Netanyahu, who always preferred to add a moderate fig leaf to soften his right-wing coalitions, like Ehud Barak in 2009, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid in 2013 and Benny Gantz in 2020; or the updated Bibi version, who is dedicated to his legal endeavors and to his natural allies in his bloc.

Netanyahu is completely aware of the international and foreign implications a coalition with Ben-Gvir would entail, and has heard the implicit warnings from the Democratic Party’s Robert Menendez and Brad Sherman that his inclusion in the government could damage and test US-Israel relations. Avoiding a picture with Ben-Gvir also puts off what seems like a looming crisis with the Biden White House.

Benny Gantz is the prime suspect in Netanyahu's Ben-Gvir photo snub

AS BEN-GVIR correctly suggested, Gantz is the immediate suspect in the photo snub case.

The defense minister strongly and consistently denies any scenario of ever cooperating with Netanyahu again, but he has a reputation of being flexible on his past promises. Gantz’s campaign highlights himself as the only answer to the “November nightmare” coalition of Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.

Gantz is hoping that they fail to reach the required 61-seat majority and that Lapid fails to form a coalition with the Arab parties. Gantz would then dive in and emerge as the only candidate who can form a stable government.

However, if Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir achieve their 61-seat victory, Gantz is also likely to receive a generous offer to replace the latter at the cabinet table – and help Netanyahu avoid a joint photo with him for much longer. •