The Ben-Gvir Golem has turned on its creator, Netanyahu - analysis

The mishmash of incidents and conflicting statements are uncharacteristic for Netanyahu, whose campaigns are usually impeccable.

 Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen with then-Mossad director Yossi Cohen at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Israel on October 15, 2015 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen with then-Mossad director Yossi Cohen at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Israel on October 15, 2015
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

A cartoon in Yediot Aharonot on Thursday depicted Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben-Gvir’s face as a carnivorous plant with tentacles. The Ben-Gvir plant is in the process of wrapping a tentacle around opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing him and half his size, while saying “FEED ME BIBI.” Religious Zionist Party (RZP) head Bezalel Smotrich is depicted as one of the smaller tentacles, and the flowerpot has a symbol of the Kahanist Kach movement on it.

The cartoon is accurate in that it reveals something that may be the most important part of this election campaign: RZP is beginning to reach monstrous proportions, thanks entirely to Ben-Gvir.

In a poll by KAN published earlier this week, Likud received 31 seats, the lowest number of seats yet among KAN’s pollster Dudi Hasid, while RZP received 14, its highest yet.

When Netanyahu acted in early August to get Smotrich and Ben-Gvir to run together, the assumption was that in the weeks leading up to the election, Bibi would “suck” votes away from the joint party by arguing it was necessary for the Likud to remain strong.

Some analysts wondered at the time whether the Likud leader might end up regretting it, and the picture that is unfolding is that the plan indeed seems to be backfiring. Ben-Gvir is sucking votes away from the Likud, and seems to be gaining momentum at the most critical time. Furthermore, Netanyahu, the master campaigner, is not displaying a clear strategy vis-à-vis Ben-Gvir, which more than anything else indicates that he was caught off guard.

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

No photos, please

The two met last week at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem to coordinate their campaigns in the last two weeks before the election, and reportedly agreed that Ben-Gvir would focus on the voters in the South, who had relatively low voting percentages in the previous election and who do not seem overly eager to vote for the Likud. This seems like a generous gift from Netanyahu, as the South has overwhelmingly voted Likud in the past few elections.

Netanyahu again insisted that there should be no picture of the meeting. The obvious reason for this is that while he so far has refrained from attacking Ben-Gvir and is helping him behind the scenes, he also does not want the two to appear too close, as this could push away moderate right-wing voters.

But then a bizarre incident occurred on Monday night, when Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir attended the same “Hakafot Shniyot” event in Kfar Habad. Netanyahu was so concerned to appear with Ben-Gvir that he refused to go on stage until Ben-Gvir had left it, and Ben-Gvir was physically removed from the stage, with all of this occurring on camera. A picture was also taken of Netanyahu waiting sour-faced for his turn to go onstage.

Even more bizarre, Ben-Gvir said after the incident in a video that he had been told by someone in the Likud that the reason Netanyahu did not want to be with him on stage was because it would block the former prime minister from forming a government with Benny Gantz.

Then, Smotrich said on Tuesday that he knew “for a fact” that Gantz wanted to form a government with Netanyahu and leave Ben-Gvir out.

If this is indeed the Likud’s secret plan, why would it have revealed it so openly to Ben-Gvir? And why did Netanyahu help their party to continue growing if in the end they will not be offered to join the coalition?

The answer is that Netanyahu’s plan all along was for the RZP to lose seats as the election approached. Had this happened, and Netanyahu not reached 61 seats within his bloc, the only remaining option would have been to bring Gantz on board – at the expense of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

When Netanyahu realized that the revelation about Gantz could harm him, as it could drive even more voters into Ben-Gvir’s hands, he quickly circulated a video on Tuesday explaining that Gantz had joined the Left, and would not sit with him. He reiterated this a number of times during the week. Gantz also said clearly that under no circumstances would he join Netanyahu.

The mishmash of incidents and conflicting statements are uncharacteristic for Netanyahu, whose campaigns are usually impeccable.

What is going on?

In short – there is a bug in the system. Ben-Gvir is gaining on behalf of Bibi, and the latter has not yet decided what to do about it. If he attacks Ben-Gvir, he risks being criticized in return, but if he does not, Ben-Gvir might keep gaining.

Ben-Gvir's subtle influence

Ben-Gvir is challenging Netanyahu in a way that no one else on the Right has done for a long time – he is using Netanyahu’s own tactics. Netanyahu used to be the undisputed master of using the media to his advantage. But Ben-Gvir is simply outperforming him, without even meaning to. He has not attacked Netanyahu at all, only spoken about himself and his party as the “true Right.”

Ben-Gvir manages to make headlines nearly every day. He appears at sites of terrorist attacks soon after they occur, similar to what Netanyahu did in the 1990s. He fires up crowds, especially young people, and uses rhetoric that makes Netanyahu seem like a gentleman. He uses props in videos on social media, and fires off lawsuits on a weekly basis. He is charismatic, younger and more extreme

The Golem has turned on its creator, and it’s not over yet.