Jerusalem – Until last year, Itamar Ben-Gvir was best known as a fringe Palestinian-hating religious far-right provocateur.
Now, as Israelis vote in parliamentary elections on Tuesday, he looks set to become a key player in the country’s fifth vote in less than four years.
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A settler in Kiryat Araba, one of the most radical settlements in the occupied West Bank (illegal under international law), Ben-Gvir has been convicted of incitement to racism, destroying property, possessing a “terror” organisation’s propaganda material and supporting a “terror” organisation – Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach group, which he joined when he was 16.
But in the March 2021 elections, Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party managed to enter the Israeli parliament by merging with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union party, becoming the Religious Zionism slate at the behest of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wanted to ensure that no right-wing votes would be lost in his attempt to form the next government.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, failed to become prime minister, but the deal got Ben-Gvir in the door.
Now the slate is poised to become the third-largest in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And with Netanyahu having a 50-50 chance of forming the next government, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are preparing for their chance plans that would change the nature of Israel’s political system.
One of their goals is undermining the Israeli judiciary by removing the offence of fraud and breach of trust – for which Netanyahu is on trial – from the criminal code, stripping the High Court of Justice of its ability to strike down unconstitutional laws and giving parliamentarians control over judge selection.
On Saturday, a legislator from Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party likened a possible government with Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir to the rise of Adolf Hitler, saying: “I am not comparing this to anything, but Hitler also rose to power in a democratic manner”.
Ben-Gvir also wants to expel “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel. In August, a local radio station’s online poll found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis support the proposal.
Daniel Goldman, 53, a religious Jewish businessman and social activist from the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, is disappointed that so many religious Jews support Ben-Gvir.
“He says he’s going to decide what a test of loyalty is and therefore who is going to be allowed to be a citizen, that’s not acceptable, not just from a democratic point of view, but from a Jewish point of view,” Goldman told Al Jazeera.
“As a member of the religious Zionist community, I am upset that the opinions [of] Smotrich and, to a greater degree, Ben-Gvir have become accepted in the mainstream community I belong to. My Judaism believes we have a responsibility to the minority, not just to the majority, so that includes everybody in Israel.”
Mainstream Israeli newspapers have published op-eds talking of “fateful elections” and “a return to the Dark Ages”.
Former minister Limor Livnat from the right-wing Likud party wrote in Friday’s Yedioth newspaper that a “real Likudnik won’t vote Likud”, citing Netanyahu’s decision to bring Ben-Gvir in, “straight from the fringes of the radical and lunatic right-wing to the heart of political life and to turn him into a hero”.
Ehud Barak, a former Labour party PM, prophesied “dark days” if Ben-Gvir entered government, while left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon said the elections would “determine whether there will be a free country here or a Jewish theocracy”.
Ben-Gvir has a long history of provoking Palestinians and the Israeli left wing.
In 1995, at the height of the Oslo Peace Accords, when he was 19, Ben-Gvir showed TV cameras the bonnet ornament from then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, declaring: “We got to his car. We’ll get to him, too.”
A few weeks later, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist at a rally in support of the peace agreement and the planned withdrawal from Palestinian territory.
Ben-Gvir was also notorious for displaying on his wall a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994.
Since winning a Knesset seat in the last election, he has pulled a gun on Palestinian parking attendants in Tel Aviv – over which he was interrogated by police – and got into a dispute with legislator Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, when Odeh blocked him from the hospital room of a Palestinian prisoner on hunger strike.
Last month, Ben-Gvir went to the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Israeli authorities are attempting to evict Palestinian families, with a group of settlers who slashed Palestinians’ car tyres and tried to storm one family’s home. When Palestinians responded by throwing stones, he pulled out a gun, despite the police presence at the scene.
On Sunday, Ben-Gvir declared that if Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc wins a majority, he will demand to be Public Security Minister, which would give him authority over the police and the border police.
Ben-Gvir claims Israeli police officers’ and soldiers’ hands are tied and he wants to loosen the rules to allow them to shoot at Palestinians who throw stones – but not Jewish people who do the same.
“What really worries me is … the support from the youth, that people believe that using violence and power are the way we should live and not through equality and normal relations between Jews and Arabs,” Doubi Schwartz, a 63-year-old peace activist from the central Israeli city of Hod Hasharon, told Al Jazeera. “Ben-Gvir is a black flag flying over Israeli democracy.”
Fertile ground for the far right
There are a number of reasons for the rise of Ben-Gvir.
Last year’s violence in religiously “mixed” towns, which began with the attempted evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, has been a contributing factor.
“The riots in Lod and other mixed Jewish-Arab towns came as a major trauma for many Jewish Israelis. We’re not talking about Palestinians under occupation. We’re talking about Palestinian Israeli citizens, who burned synagogues and attacked Jews randomly on the streets, who attacked their neighbours,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor.
“Then Ben-Gvir stepped in and began doing what Ben-Gvir does best … rabble-rousing. And he organised Jewish ‘counter-lynch’ mobs. He went into the streets and organised the rage.”
Most Jewish Israelis are unaware that it was police and Jews connected with the Jewish nationalist Garin Torani community in Lydd (Lod) who first attacked Palestinians in the city on May 11, 2021. Palestinians responded by throwing rocks and, hours later across town, Garin members opened fire on Palestinians and killed Moussa Hassouneh, 32, a father of three, who Palestinians said was uninvolved.
In the days that followed, violence escalated as armed Jews arrived from settlements in the occupied West Bank and around the country, attacking Palestinians in their homes and on the streets, and setting fire to a Muslim cemetery, cars and shops. There was violence from Palestinians, and a Jewish resident was killed, but the Hebrew media overwhelmingly reported on the attacks on Jews and Jewish property.
After three days, Israel’s Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai blamed Ben-Gvir for the unrest in Jewish-Palestinian cities.
Ben-Gvir also benefits from the timing of the latest election and a fractured political landscape.
The peace process is no more, there’s been a spate of attacks by Palestinians in Israel since March, and Israeli forces conduct raids nearly every day in the occupied West Bank, killing dozens of Palestinians.
“During periods of uncertainty and tension, when people want an answer and the left wing doesn’t have an immediate one, the ground is fertile for the messages of the right wing, which answers in a much more populist way,” explained Daniel Bar-Tal, a political psychologist at Tel Aviv University. “And this is the phenomenon of Ben-Gvir.”
After the Sheikh Jarrah incident in October, he posted a photo of himself with two of his children holding enormous plastic machine guns at an amusement arcade, captioned: “After the riots in Shimon Hatzadik, I took the children to an arcade to teach them what to do to terrorists. Happy holidays and Shabbat Shalom.”