The Verdict Is Still Out on Ben-Gvir as National Security Minister
His new position of power could easily backfire and cost him his political career
As the appointment of far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir to a new national security portfolio in a coalition government to be led by Binyamin Netanyahu becomes a fact, euphoria is soaring among his followers and concern is mounting among various local and international actors.
But while confrontations are expected between Ben-Gvir’s supporters and his opponents on the Israeli and Jewish left, among Arab Israelis and Palestinians, in the international community, and even among some on the Israeli right, some observers believe his appointment could have the opposite effect and actually lower tensions, depending on his performance.
Under the coalition agreement between Likud and Otzma Yehudit, Ben-Gvir will head the National Security Ministry, which is an expanded version of the existing Public Security Ministry that oversees the Israel Police. The deal transfers to the new portfolio the jurisdiction over several additional bodies from other ministries and government institutions.
Among them would be the West Bank division of the Border Police, which is currently subordinate to the Israeli military; the Green Police for environmental protection that now operates under the Environmental Protection Ministry; the Green Rangers, currently under the control of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority; and the Real Estate Enforcement Division, which now belongs to the Finance Ministry.
Putting Ben-Gvir in charge of the country’s national police force is, to say the least, a controversial move. The Otzma Yehudit leader, a former activist in the extremist Kach movement that was outlawed for its support of terrorism, claimed in 2015 to have been indicted by Israeli prosecutors 53 times and convicted seven times. His criminal rap sheet reportedly includes convictions on charges of obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duties, rioting, and incitement to racism, two charges of possession of propaganda material for a terrorist organization, and two charges of supporting a terrorist organization.
Putting Ben-Gvir in charge of the Border Police’s paramilitary operations in the West Bank is equally controversial. The Otzma Yehudit leader himself never served in the military, which, he says, refrained from drafting him due to his activism in the radical and often violent Kach movement when he was a teenager. Kach was declared an illegal terrorist organization in 1994, the same year Ben-Gvir turned 18 and became eligible for the draft.
After the coalition agreement was signed on Friday, outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed concern over Ben-Gvir’s upcoming expanded security role.
“A private army for Ben-Gvir in [the West Bank] is dangerous … and will create real security failures,” he said.
Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an expert in international relations at Tel Aviv University, says that despite Ben-Gvir’s accumulation of power through his coalition agreement with the Likud, that power could easily boomerang and undermine his political status. “As we have seen in the world, the biggest enemy of populists is power,” Navon told The Media Line.
Navon says that after Ben-Gvir has been on the job for a few months, his voters will know whether he is able to implement his commitment to improving domestic security. “If Ben-Gvir fails to restore domestic security, he will also lose his voters,” he says, adding that many of them come from the Likud and were attracted by his rhetoric.
Dr. Eyal Lewin, chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science at Ariel University, told The Media Line that it is not possible to anticipate his performance yet and that if the job is done right, a change of players on the ground could have a positive effect. “I’m not sure we have the tools to really evaluate this because it all depends on him. We have not yet seen him doing any job so we cannot really know,” he says.
He compares the widespread skepticism toward Ben-Gvir to the mood that existed when the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin was first elected to the premiership in 1977. “It was up to his [Begin’s] performance, and eventually, I think the result was a good one.”
Emad Abu Awad, a political analyst based in the West Bank, tells The Media Line that regardless of Ben-Gvir’s posture, “when a person is in a position of official capacity, they will do their best to keep things under control.”
On that matter, Abu Awad cited the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he said, “What you see from here is not what you see from there,” referring to how perspectives change from a position of power.
Navon says that after Ben-Gvir holds the position, he could reveal himself as “hot air” by not fulfilling his promises. If that is the case, “it would undermine his electoral support and it might also undermine the stability of the government.” The latter, he explains, “is because if he feels that he is losing his voters because of his poor showing, he might just pull out and blame the government.”
Abu Awad even considers the possibility of this truly being Netanyahu’s motive for bringing Ben-Gvir to this position: “to burn him and end his political career.” This could happen if Ben-Gvir shows his followers that not everything he promises can be accomplished.
Lewin, however, says that Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu did not have a choice other than conceding to Ben-Gvir, as he leads the third largest party after the election.
“I’m not sure that the coming prime minister had any other choice, he says. “The result of the election was that many people wanted Ben-Gvir, and they wanted him in office. They didn’t want him just as a landmark; they wanted him active,” he said.
Regarding Israel’s ties with the United States and other allies that are concerned by the rise of a far-right government, Navon does not believe the appointment of Ben-Gvir as national security minister will have any impact.
He explains that, as opposed to the defense portfolio, “the US is not as concerned with the national security portfolio, as long as Ben-Gvir’s policy is not contributing to instability and violence.”
On the other hand, he adds, giving the defense portfolio to Bezalel Smotrich, as he requested, “would have had quite an impact on relations with the US, as its government has insisted on not giving it to him.”
Abu Awad says that from the point of view of many Palestinians, including himself, Ben-Gvir’s holding such power does not represent an additional concern, since they regard the outgoing government, headed by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, as “the worst for the Palestinians.” This assessment, he says, is based on “the increase in the number of settlements and Palestinians killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, more incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Judaization of Jerusalem,” during their government.
Therefore, he adds, “I do not see a genuine difference between Ben-Gvir and Yair Lapid.” The only difference, Abu Awad continues, “is that an Israeli right-wing government, with Netanyahu as its leader, may be better equipped to control Ben-Gvir’s behavior.”
Navon adds that, in terms of coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there is very little to lose, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already lost most of his control over the Fatah party, and the current level of security cooperation between Israel and the PA is at a low point.
Hussein al-Sheikh, secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, issued this response on Twitter to the new right-wing and far-right coalition taking shape in Israel: “The program of the upcoming Israeli government and the agreement of the right-wing fascist coalition warns that we are headed toward a new political phase in which tactics and strategies will change,” al-Sheikh wrote, “and it will require a comprehensive reevaluation and new Palestinian national plans, locally and internationally, to confront the plans of extremists and racists, the new masters of the next government in Israel.”