At a Simhat Torah party in central Israel less than two weeks before the election, a most awkward and bizarre political drama unfolded.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the firebrand right-wing ideologue set to potentially become a minister in the next government, had just finished speaking and waited on stage to welcome (and be photographed with) the event’s next speaker, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, perhaps the most experienced and successful political operative Israel has ever known, was having none of it.
A clip and reports of the event quickly spread. Despite being told that Netanyahu would not appear with Ben-Gvir, the latter refused to exit the stage. Organizers had to step in and rather forcefully persuade him to leave so that the former prime minister could speak to the crowd.
Earlier in the month, Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir had met to coordinate their campaign efforts, yet no photographs of the meeting are to be found.
Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party and the self-proclaimed “Religious Zionist” party headed by Bezalel Smotrich are running together. Ben-Gvir is second on the slate’s list, meaning that if they become part of the ruling coalition, he’s all but guaranteed a significant ministerial post.
Yet one would be hard-pressed to find any recent photos of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir together. He is all but absent from Religious Zionist campaign materials, including printed flyers and social media posts. In fact, though running together, the two parties run separate ads in the same publications.
Why are Smotrich and Netanyahu ashamed of Ben-Gvir? Should Israeli voters be ashamed too?
The question begs to be asked: Why are Smotrich and Netanyahu so ashamed of Ben-Gvir? Is it the fact that he – number two on the Religious Zionist list – never served in the military or performed National Service? Is it his ever-off-center yarmulke or seemingly perpetually untucked shirt?
Or is it his outspoken views on Arabs and non-Orthodox Jews, which many in Israel and the Diaspora find reprehensible? There are clear political calculations here: both Smotrich and Netanyahu benefit from a strong Ben-Gvir, yet they both have what to lose by appearing to be too close to him.
Many Smotrich and Netanyahu supporters find Ben-Gvir’s persona and ideology abhorrent, and yet if the Netanyahu-led bloc succeeds in the upcoming election, Itamar Ben-Gvir – the man they are both apparently too ashamed to be photographed with – will be the second-highest-ranking Knesset member in the coalition’s second-largest party, a position guaranteed an important ministerial post according to any basic political logic.
Smotrich and Netanyahu are banking on voters being less embarrassed by Ben-Gvir at the anonymous ballot box than they themselves have been throughout the campaign.
Should voters be as ashamed of Ben-Gvir and his ideas as his own party chief and would-be coalition head clearly are?
The author is a Jerusalem-based writer and publicist. His work focuses primarily on Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern history and culture. @ZackRothbart