Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s kingmaker?

AS THE VOTES From Israel’s fifth election in less than four years were finalized on November 3rd, one group in particular had cause to celebrate. The Religious Zionism list took 14 seats in the Knesset, up from six last year, making it the third-largest group. Many credit Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right nationalist politician, with boosting his popularity. He joined Religious Zionism as co-leader at the behest of Binyamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, to bolster support for Mr Netanyahu’s far-right bloc in parliament. His popularity has propelled Mr Netanyahu back to the top job⁠—and has pulled Israeli politics further to the right. Once on the fringe, Mr Ben-Gvir might now become a government minister. What does his rise to power mean for Israel?

For years Mr Ben-Gvir was shunned by right-wingers as an extremist. Born in 1976 in Jerusalem to Iraqi Jewish immigrants, Mr Ben-Gvir joined Kach, an ultra-nationalist movement described by America as a terrorist organisation, at the age of 16. Kach was led by Meir Kahane, a violent anti-Arab nationalist who called for Arab Israelis to be stripped of their citizenship. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a fellow Kach adherent, killed 29 Palestinians in a mosque in the occupied West Bank; Until he entered politics Mr Ben-Gvir hung a poster of Goldstein in his home. Mr Ben-Gvir made a name for himself in 1995, after being exempted from conscription to the Israel Defense Forces because of his extreme views, by threatening Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, on television, saying he would “get to him”. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultra-nationalist three weeks later.

Mr Ben-Gvir qualified as a lawyer, specializing in representing Jews accused of extremism. In 2013 he joined the Knesset slate for Jewish Power, an ideological successor to Kach, and became its leader in 2019. Mr Ben-Gvir has called for “disloyal” Arabs to be expelled from Israel and has been filmed waving a gun in the faces of Palestinians protesting in East Jerusalem. He has been indicted more than 50 times (and convicted once) for inciting violence and hate speech.

Yet only in the past year has his party had any weight in Israeli politics. In the election of March 2020 Jewish Power mustered just 0.42% of the vote, below the electoral threshold to gain a seat in the Knesset. But last year it joined the Religious Zionism list which, with the help of Mr Ben-Gvir’s voters, more than doubled its number of seats in this week’s election.

A combination of rising violence and a flailing political system has created an opportunity for Mr Ben-Gvir to sell his views to a wider audience. Last year Mr Netanyahu courted Arab politicians and voters, alienating the right. Ultra-religious voters are looking to more extreme parties for representation. Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews overwhelmingly vote for religious conservatives, and their swelling population⁠—the group maintains a birth rate more than twice the national average⁠—has bolstered support for candidates like Mr Ben-Gvir.

Mr Ben-Gvir wants to be minister of public security in the new government. That will be a headache for Mr Netanyahu, who has returned as prime minister thanks to Mr Ben-Gvir’s voters. Mr Ben-Gvir wants greater scope for the police to shoot “terrorist” Arabs and supports weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws. He also wants to remove the offenses of fraud and breach of trust⁠—for which Mr Netanhayu is on trial⁠—from the criminal code. Such moves will strike fear into Arab communities and will alienate international allies, such as Joe Biden’s America. Mr Netanyahu avoids being photographed with Mr Ben-Gvir, but was willing to call on his voters to secure his own majority. Now he will have to figure out how to accommodate an extremist in his new government.

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