Behind the anti-Bibi camp’s vilification of Ben-Gvir - opinion

Yair Lapid's chance of preventing Benjamin Netanyahu from winning the Israeli elections hinges on the Arab parties crossing the threshold. To charm Arab voters, he's vilifying Itamar Ben-Gvir.

 A billboard of then-Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) , as part of Otzma Yehudit election campaign, in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat, February 28, 2020.  (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
A billboard of then-Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) , as part of Otzma Yehudit election campaign, in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat, February 28, 2020.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

With each passing day ahead of the fast-approaching November 1 Knesset elections, the rhetoric against opposition leader and Likud Party chairman Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu increases in volume and vitriol. Gossip disguised as investigative reportage keeps cropping up about the former prime minister vying to return to the premiership. 

This is coupled with, and often overshadowed by, warnings about the perils of a government that includes MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, No. 2 on the Religious Zionist Party slate. The right-wing firebrand is not only certain to retain his parliamentary seat, but – given his soaring popularity in the polls – will be a prominent figure in a Netanyahu-forged coalition.  

The mudslinging consists of rival politicians and leftist pundits shouting daily from podiums and op-ed pages that Netanyahu will stop at nothing to return to the helm; that Ben-Gvir is a fascist; and that a victory for their camp will mean an end to Israeli democracy.

The ridiculous accusations would be funny if they weren’t echoed in the halls of Washington and Brussels by Israel’s ill-wishers, as well as by ignorant fellow travelers.

Less understood outside of Israel is the real reason that the anti-Netanyahu choir has been singing so loudly about Ben-Gvir. Prime Minister Yair Lapid cannot form a coalition without the backing of the Arab parties. Even with all three of them, he still falls short of the necessary 61-mandate majority. 

 Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at Blich high school (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks at Blich high school (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

One of these is the United Arab List (Ra’am). Though it is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, its chairman, MK Mansour Abbas, became the first of his ilk to join a governing coalition. 

Opposing sides, driving a wedge through Israeli society

Breaking from the tradition of his anti-Zionist brethren in the back benches of the Knesset, he acknowledged Jewish statehood and vowed to stop prioritizing Palestinianism over the interests of his constituents, Israel’s Arab citizens. This earned him a big budget for his sector, but didn’t cause him to side with the country in its ongoing battle with Palestinian/Arab terrorism or its defensive war against Hamas in Gaza. 

Still, his party is a member of the current coalition. And now deemed “kosher,” it has a rightful place on the “anybody but Bibi” side of the pie chart that accompanies every poll. 

This is not the case where the other Arab parties, Balad and Hadash-Ta’al, are concerned. Though not a homogeneous bunch, the bedfellows share a treasonous hostility to the state that puts them in a separate category in the survey graphics.

At the moment, Balad isn’t even scratching the surface of the electoral threshold, and the other two are in jeopardy of not crossing it. If any of them winds up out of the Knesset, Lapid’s chance – not of victory, which is out of his reach in any case, but of preventing Netanyahu from winning – goes from low to nil

And he knows it. In fact, his only attainable goal at this point is securing a deadlock, so that he can remain interim prime minister for as long as it takes until the next round of elections.

To this end, he embarked on a charm offensive in the Arab sector. It’s a perfectly legitimate move; targeting potential voters is fair game for all party leaders, and Lapid is no exception. The trouble is the message he’s conveying.

In an interview on Tuesday with Arabic-language Israeli news outlets, he made three promises that should be of particular concern to anyone who fancies him to be in the so-called “center.”

 MK ITAMAR BEN-GVIR addresses the Knesset plenum as Ra’am (United Arab List) Party leader Mansour Abbas presides during a session in November. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) MK ITAMAR BEN-GVIR addresses the Knesset plenum as Ra’am (United Arab List) Party leader Mansour Abbas presides during a session in November. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

One was about the 2018 nation-state law, which he called “an insult to non-Jewish Israeli citizens,” and said it should be amended.

Another was about illegal Arab construction, though he left out the nasty adjective.

“We need to build new Arab settlements and expand existing ones,” he said, boasting that the government froze the Kaminitz Law, and explaining that the “complexity” of the ideologically diverse coalition (i.e. with a number of right-wing members) made it impossible to eliminate the legislation. 

“We’ll be able to delve into that immediately after the elections,” pledged the guy who considers Jewish settlements to be an obstacle to peace and a “two-state solution.” 

He was referring to Amendment 116 to Israel’s Planning and Construction Law. The amendment, which was ratified in 2017, imposes harsh penalties for illegal construction and empowers various authorities to enforce them. Being the main offenders, Arabs fiercely opposed it. Israel’s caretaker PM was announcing that he would work to reverse it.

He then bragged that a government under him “will not alter the status quo at al-Aqsa [mosque]. We will ensure the freedom of worship of Muslims at al-Aqsa.” As though this was ever in question.

He reiterated, “It is our duty as a government to allow freedom of worship for any Muslim who wants to come and pray at Al-Aqsa, and we will safeguard that.” Again, this has always been the situation.

He hastened to add happily, “We do not allow Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount.”

Sadly true, and unfortunately not new. But his pandering in this way was as disgusting as the ban on Jewish worship at Judaism’s holiest site. 

In wake of radicalism

LAPID IS aware that radical Arabs and Palestinians use lies about Israel “storming al-Aqsa” as a unifying rallying cry for perpetrators of every attack, from rock-throwing to rocket-launching. His repetition of the name of the mosque was certainly not accidental in this context. 

Shame on him for the wink and nod to Israel’s sworn enemies. You know, the ones he seems to believe are preferable to Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir.

Herein lies the irony, however. While Lapid has been trying to curry favor with the Arab parties, or at least to keep them from dropping below the threshold, one of them has been too busy courting the other’s voters to care about treading delicately. 

Take your hands off Shuafat; the occupation kills,” starts a Hadash-Ta’al campaign video aimed at attracting Balad supporters before their ballots are lost altogether. The clip, approved by the party’s “mainstream” leaders, MKs Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, goes on to mention Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

“[She] threatens [us], but she is not the only one responsible. Lapid and his accomplices take revenge, murder and dance on our blood. Just as they were disappointed in Gaza, so will they be in east Jerusalem. Lapid will be disappointed; the occupation will be disappointed; our Palestinian people’s desire for freedom will win.”

Shaked – whose party, Bayit Yehudi, like Balad, is unlikely to make it into the Knesset – promptly responded with a letter cautioning against incitement. Lapid, on the other hand, let it slide.

PRIME MINISTER Bibi prepares to walk on water (credit: COURTESY OF SOMEONE YOU WILL NEVER KNOW)PRIME MINISTER Bibi prepares to walk on water (credit: COURTESY OF SOMEONE YOU WILL NEVER KNOW)

After all, he can’t afford to cross Odeh and Tibi, lest they decide not to recommend him to the president as the candidate who should get first dibs at forming a coalition. The whole issue will be moot, of course, if Netanyahu has a clear majority after the final tally.

What is and will remain relevant, regardless of the outcome, is the vilification of Bibi and Ben-Gvir alongside the tacit acceptance of such dangerous extremists as Odeh and Tibi. The good news is that the public isn’t buying the nonsense that only a left-wing government leaning on anti-Zionists can rescue Israeli democracy – which is precisely why the former figures have large, loyal bases and the latter two are floundering.