Israel elections: Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir?

Far-right leader set to play kingmaker to Benjamin Netanyahu

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 02 November 2022 12:58 GMT
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Israel’s long-serving former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be on the cusp of a return to power, with the help of his right-wing allies, after exit polls from the country’s fifth election in four years suggested his Likud Party and its partners had secured the 61-seats needed for a majority to form a new government.

Since Mr Netanyahu’s ousting in 2021, Israel has been stranded in political deadlock under his successor Naftali Bennett, whose coalition premiership gradually fell apart after becoming riven with disagreements and factional in-fighting before its inevitable collapse in June.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, has served as caretaker PM in the interim but his party now looks set to finish as only the second-largest in the Knesset.

Should those polls prove correct, Mr Netanyahu, who is facing trial on corruption charges that he rejects, will have Itamar Ben-Gvir to thank for playing kingmaker.

Mr Ben-Gvir, 46, is the face of the far-right Religious Zionism collective, which entered parliament in 2021 when his own Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union and Avi Maoz’s Noam.

Since winning his Knesset seat last year, Mr Ben-Gvir has hit the headlines for reportedly pulling a gun on Palestinian parking attendants in Tel Aviv – prompting a police interview – and getting into a heated dispute with Palestinian legislator Ayman Odeh after the latter blocked him from entering a hospital room in which a Palestinian prisoner was engaged in a hunger strike.

Itamar Ben-Gvir was born in the Mevaseret Zion suburb of Jerusalem on 6 May, 1976, to Jewish parents with Iraqi and Kurdish heritage. He developed an interest in radical right-wing politics as a teenager.

At 16, he became a member of hard-line rabbi Meir Kahane’s ultra-nationalist Kach party, which was branded a terrorist group by the US prior to Kahane’s assassination in New York City in 1990.

Kahane’s agenda had called for banning intermarriage between Arabs and Jews, stripping Arabs of Israeli citizenship and expelling large numbers of Palestinians.

His disciple appears now to have succeeded in channelling similar, if moderated, instincts into a popular political force, which the Associated Press attributes in part to Mr Ben-Gvir’s “frequent media appearances, cheerful demeanour [and] knack for deflecting criticism”.

As a young man, Mr Ben-Gvir attained notoriety by posing on TV brandishing a hood ornament said to have been stripped from then-PM Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac and declaring, “We got to his car. We’ll get to him, too”, helping to stoke anger among fellow opponents of the 1995 Oslo Peace Accords.

Rabin was assassinated shortly after, shot dead by extremist Yigal Amir after attending a rally at what was then Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv on 4 November 1995. The square now bears the dead man’s name.

Mr Ben-Gvir was also said to have a picture of Baruch Goldstein proudly displayed on his wall, the American-Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994, an image he claims now to have removed as a indication of his softened stance, according to The Times of Israel.

Having frequently represented himself in court in response to his regular indictments for such charges as – according to Al Jazeera – incitement to racism, destroying property, possessing a “terror” organisation’s propaganda material and supporting a “terror” organisation (referring to his affiliation with Kach), Mr Ben-Gvir chose to formally study law at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono.

After completing his exams, he faced opposition from the Israel Bar Association over his criminal record and extremist background (objections he insisted were purely political) but finally overcame them to enter the legal profession, where he made a name for himself defending Jewish radicals accused of terrorism and hate crimes.

Since returning to frontline politics and rising to the leadership of Otzma Yehudit in 2019, Mr Ben-Gvir’s ascent to the top table has been remarkably swift, leading to the jubilant scenes that unfolded at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem on Tuesday, when he told his followers: “The time has come for us to reassert ownership of this state.”

Supporters of Itamar Ben-Gvir celebrate following the announcement of exit polls in Israel’s general election at his party headquarters in Jerusalem
Supporters of Itamar Ben-Gvir celebrate following the announcement of exit polls in Israel’s general election at his party headquarters in Jerusalem (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Attempting to strike a more conciliatory note, he added: “I want to say to those who did not vote for me: We’re all brothers… We represent everyone: secular and religious, Haredi and traditional, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.”

Pledging “real change”, like many a populist before him, and to “settle Judea and Samaria”, meaning the West Bank, Mr Ben-Gvir said he would “act against petrol bomb and stone throwers”, drawing enthusiastic cries of “Death to terrorists!” from his supporters.

If Mr Netanyahu’s alliance does end up controlling a majority in the Knesset and forming a government, Mr Ben-Gvir is expected to demand the Cabinet post of Public Security Minister, allowing him to oversee Israel’s police force, and reportedly hopes to strip the offences of fraud and breach of trust from the country’s criminal code, which would help Mr Netanyahu and undermine the judiciary by weakening its ability to strike down contested laws.

Yesh Atid parliamentarian Ram Ben Barak courted controversy on Saturday when he likened the prospect of a Netanyahu-Ben-Gvir government to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

“I am not comparing this to anything, but Hitler also rose to power in a democratic manner,” he told a rally in Beersheba, fully aware of the gravity of that accusation.

Former PM Ehud Barak likewise prophesied “dark days” to come should Itamar Ben-Gvir enter government while left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon warned Israel could now find itself “a Jewish theocracy” and no longer “a free country”.

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