Itamar Ben-Gvir can only hurt Israel’s standing in the world - analysis

Ben-Gvir is a former member of the Kach movement, designated as a terror group, and had a picture of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The question of whether Israel will go to yet another election or receive a new government – and if so, what kind of government – remains an open one. But if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu manages to build a coalition instead of the bloc opposing him, it is likely to include the Religious Zionist Party.
For the first time in this four-election cycle, and for the first time since 2013, an acolyte of Rabbi Meir Kahane – banned from running in elections on grounds of incitement to racism – won a seat in the Knesset. That acolyte, Itamar Ben-Gvir, leads the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) Party, which ran in the  Religious Zionist bloc.
Ben-Gvir is a former member of the Kach movement, which was designated as a terrorist group by Israel, the US, the EU and others. He’s a lawyer, and is smart enough to avoid saying anything that would entail criminal incitement. But to give you an idea of his views, he famously had a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslims in 1994, hanging in his living room.
Also making it into the Knesset in the Religious Zionist bloc is Avi Maoz, leader of openly homophobic Noam Party, which describes itself as defending “normal” families.
There have been Kahanists in the Knesset in the past. In the 1980s, there was Kahane himself, before he was banned, and in 2009-2013, there was Michael Ben-Ari. But Kahane was an outcast; all other MKs would walk out of the room when he spoke, except for the one presiding over the meeting. Although people did not walk out on Ben-Ari, there were many lawmakers who would not work with him, and he was in the opposition.
The Religious Zionist Party made it into the Knesset with Netanyahu’s active encouragement. Likud signed a vote-sharing agreement that could have resulted in them getting an extra seat in the Knesset, though they didn’t in the end.
The party promised that it would recommend Netanyahu as the next prime minister, and prominent Likudniks who are close to Netanyahu called on people to vote for the Religious Zionists to ensure they would pass the electoral threshold.
All along, Netanyahu said Ben-Gvir would not be a minister in his cabinet. But he also said that Ben-Gvir would not be the 61st vote in his coalition, and now it looks likely that if Netanyahu finds a way to remain prime minister, he will, in fact, be very dependent on him.
Also, Netanyahu did not issue a full-throated or even half-hearted condemnation of Ben-Gvir’s views, though the prime minister did campaign on promising a better quality of life for Israel’s Arab citizens.
Having a Kahanist party in the coalition would be an unprecedented situation in Israel, and it would be a way of legitimizing Otzma’s racist, extremist views.
There already seem to be murmurs from Israel’s allies abroad about this possibility. Kan’s Amichai Stein reported on Wednesday night that sources in unnamed Gulf states have expressed concern about an openly anti-Arab and Islamophobic party in the coalition, and would expect Netanyahu to openly condemn those views.
That is pretty rich coming from non-democracies with very oppressive laws, but some Gulf states have been known to make statements against Islamophobia when xenophobic attacks occur, for example, or such views are amplified in Europe.
As for Israel’s Western allies, the answer is complicated. The US and the EU are taking a “wait and see” approach, but diplomats in both made reference to statements from US Jewish organizations as an indication of where the wind is blowing.
In 2019, when Otzma joined a bloc of parties that seemed likely to bring it into the Knesset, the American Jewish Committee said it felt “compelled to speak out,” calling the party’s views “reprehensible.” AIPAC tweeted its agreement, saying it would boycott the party.
This week, the Democratic Majority for Israel, a group with close ties to the Biden administration, said it is “appalled to see another small party comprised of racist, Kahanist Jews join the Knesset. We have condemned this party before. The views of these Kahanists are antithetical to Israel’s founding principles and to our Democratic values. Bringing them into a governing coalition would be wrong.”
Interestingly, the DMFI statement mentions that a party “based on Islamist ideology may determine who leads the country’s next government.” That party, Ra’am, has ties to Hamas, a US-designated terrorist group, and the Muslim Brotherhood – which Bahrain and the UAE consider terrorists – and espouses homophobic views much like Noam’s. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any hand-wringing about their possible partnerships.
In any case, Ben-Gvir in the coalition will likely bring about statements of concern when the government is sworn in, and condemnations of racist remarks, in the likely event that he made them.
Whether there will be more than that depends on Ben-Gvir’s role, according to several sources deeply involved in the US-Israel relationship. Much like the Gulf states, the US would likely expect Netanyahu to distance himself from Otzma’s extremist positions.
US President Joe Biden “has made reinforcing democratic norms and institutions a major pillar of his domestic and foreign policy,” one source said. “Israel is still a democracy, and that’s greatly respected, but if very influential people in government are standing for not-democratic principles, as I understand is Otzma’s agenda, which has rightly been called racist, then the administration may feel compelled to speak out.
“I’m not expecting a crisis, but I do think if you listen to the Biden team about democracy, their agenda is very much at odds with [Otzma’s views]. It’s hard to imagine they would never mention it.”
But sources pointed out that the core of the US-Israel relationship would likely be safe, as that relationship is based mostly on the prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister.
At the same time, Ben-Gvir’s presence in the coalition would contribute to American Jewish disillusionment with Israel.
EUROPE IS more complicated. The EU makes foreign policy decisions by consensus, and any kind of condemnation in the name of member states would likely be vetoed, at least by Hungary – which, in addition to being very supportive of Israel in recent years, has a far-right nationalist at the head of its own government. However, the union’s foreign envoy, Josep Borrell, could make a statement of his own.
The EU has less of a leg to stand on, since their members’ legislatures have had plenty of xenophobic extremists. There is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, from whom many other leaders have tried to distance themselves, but he is still the head of an EU member state.
One example that may be instructive for Ben-Gvir’s case is Austria’s vice chancellor in 2017-2019, Heinz-Christian Strache, who was the head of the Austrian Freedom Party, which was founded by former Nazis and historically espoused racist views. Though Strache said he is not an antisemite, and even visited Yad Vashem, he espoused the “great replacement” racist conspiracy theory that, in some versions, states that Jews are sending immigrants of color into Western countries in order to eradicate the White race.
Israel – and others – boycotted Strache and the Austrian Freedom Party in general. When he visited Jerusalem, it was as a private citizen; he was not given VIP treatment. Some Knesset members were willing to meet with him, but no one from the government did.
If Ben-Gvir becomes a minister, he would likely be treated in the same way. US and European ministers certainly will not meet with him, which could be disruptive to cooperation in his area of responsibility. That being said, it will be less of a concern if he becomes the minister for the Negev and the Galilee, as he said he wants to be.
Overall, Ben-Gvir is more likely to be a domestic issue than a diplomatic one. But if he is in the coalition, he will be a thorn in Israel’s side internationally, and will likely generate even more negative headlines about Israel in the world media.