How a minister Ben-Gvir would impact Israel internationally - analysis

Whether Netanyahu wins and whether he forms a totally right-wing coalition remains to be seen. But Religious Zionism could likely be the second-largest party in a Netanyahu coalition.

 Itamar Ben-Gvir. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Itamar Ben-Gvir.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu faced criticism in his last years of office for nurturing relationships with authoritarians and leaders responsible for democratic backsliding. Could a governing coalition with Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir in a cabinet seat mean that Netanyahu will have to rely on those erstwhile allies more than ever?

Some of Israel’s Western allies have been eyeing the upcoming election warily, with polls predicting as many as 13 seats for the Religious Zionist Party, the bloc that includes Ben-Gvir’s party.

The concerns coming from Israel’s most important ally, the US, have been well-documented. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a strong supporter of Israel, warned Netanyahu in a meeting last month that including “extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben-Gvir” would hurt ties between Jerusalem and Washington.

Senior American diplomatic figures have relayed similar warnings, speaking off the record so as not to appear to be interfering in the election.

It is true that when Rabbi Meir Kahane was in the Knesset in 1984-1988, and then when his student Michael Ben-Ari was an MK in 2009-2013, it didn’t really impact US-Israel relations. Kahane was a lone MK who was boycotted by nearly all of his colleagues, who then passed a law barring parties from inciting racism, stopping him from running in the next election.

 Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019.  (credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90) Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir attend Otzma Yehudit party's election campaign event in Bat Yam on April 06, 2019. (credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)

Ben-Ari also was a lone Kahanist MK in the opposition, elected as part of the National Union bloc – not to be confused with the currently running National Unity list – and was banned from entering the US because he was a member of Kach, or Kahane Lives, classified by Washington as a terrorist organization.

But Ben-Gvir, a student of Kahane’s ideas, has the potential to be in a far more influential position than his predecessors ever were. He is responsible for at least half of the Religious Zionist bloc’s strong polling numbers, which we know because he was doing better than the bloc’s leader, MK Bezalel Smotrich, when they were running separately.

Whether Netanyahu wins and whether he forms a totally right-wing coalition remains to be seen. But if those things occur, the Religious Zionist Party would likely be the second-largest party in a Netanyahu coalition, which would mean they would be rewarded with cabinet posts.

What does Ben-Gvir want?

Ben-Gvir wants to be the public security minister, which is the Israeli equivalent of the US homeland security secretary. Jerusalem and Washington currently cooperate in many areas under those offices, and that could be jeopardized, at least under the current US administration.

If we’re already speculating about Ben-Gvir being a minister, it is worth considering that a Republican on the right of the party could become president in 2024, and the new administration could be willing to work with Ben-Gvir, as the Trump administration did with far-right figures worldwide.

As for whether he’d be allowed to visit the US, Ben-Gvir on Wednesday said he didn’t know because he has never tried to leave Israel as an adult. The only time he has ever left the country was for a bar mitzvah trip to New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

 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)

Many European governments, which tend to be far more critical of Israel than the US, would likely be just as appalled by Ben-Gvir as the US. Several of them could point to times when Israel refused to work with their cabinet ministers from parties with Nazi or fascist roots and wonder why they should talk to minister Ben-Gvir. Then again, Ben-Gvir can point to those parties and ask the Europeans why they think they have a compelling argument against him.

Beyond government, Ben-Gvir could also be a point of contention between the Israeli government and the organized Jewish community in the US. Several Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, spoke out against Ben-Gvir in 2019, when it first became apparent that he would enter the Knesset – but not this year.

Carole Nuriel, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel office, this week told the JTA the organization was “deeply concerned with the mainstreaming of extremist and Kahane-inspired extremist ideologies in Israeli society. While we do not get involved in Israel’s electoral politics, we are disturbed by reports that individuals who espouse such views have been promised by Israeli political leaders a role in a future coalition government. As an organization deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish and democratic state, we believe such a development would be corrosive to Israel’s founding principles, and its standing among its strongest supporters.”

The public security minister is responsible for Israel’s police, and the ADL has sponsored learning trips for US police departments to study Israeli anti-terrorism practices. Those programs have already been targeted by anti-Israel groups, falsely claiming that they are at the root of American police brutality. That Ben-Gvir founded a legal aid group that, in part, worked for fair treatment of Jewish detainees is unlikely to be a convincing argument to continue that partnership.

There are plenty of anti-Israel groups that don’t care who’s in the government; their screeds did not change when an Arab party joined the ruling coalition for the first time in decades last year, nor when Israel got a more liberal prime minister, Yair Lapid. But Ben-Gvir’s presence would make it that much harder for those who support and defend Israel to sway those who are not that far gone.

Ben-Gvir was savvy enough to hire one of the most eloquent English-language surrogates for his political camp, longtime Hebron community spokesman Yishai Fleischer, who portrays the party’s ideas as being anti-jihadi and a matter of border security. When the Menendez quote came out, Fleischer released a statement in Ben-Gvir’s name that he is not racist but is actually “anti-racist.”

“We are fighting against the racist antisemitism fomenting within the boundaries of our homeland,” Ben-Gvir said. “Like millions of Americans, we believe that peace comes through strength and that Israel’s policies should be based upon the firm enforcement of our right to sovereignty and self-defense. In the next government, I will work to give Israeli soldiers the confidence to fight Jihadist terror without rules of engagement that would endanger their own safety and lessen the effectiveness of their efforts. I hope to shape a justice system that works for all law-abiding citizens and residents – including those living under the corrupt Palestinian Authority.”

As for Menendez, he is “a true friend of Israel… and more importantly, he is a man of integrity. Therefore… he would not have made the statements reported had he been correctly informed.”

The statement cited “shared values of peace and freedom” between the US and Israel, and concluded: “May God bless our two nations and keep the US-Israel alliance strong.”

Ben-Gvir, with Fleischer’s help, knows the right things to say in English, but these countries have people who speak Hebrew working for them. They know Ben-Gvir wants to establish a “migration ministry” to deport “disloyal” Arabs, for example.

Even if that ministry is unlikely to ever become a reality, Ben-Gvir is already seen in Washington, Brussels and other Western capitals as a harbinger of bad things in Israel and, at best, will be an obstacle to smooth relations between them and Jerusalem.