How Ultranationalist MK Ben-Gvir Found Favor in Israel’s Political Pantheon
Once a symbol of radicalism rejected even by the right, the Otzma Yehudit leader has made his way into the national psyche, with a little help from Netanyahu, and is on track to become part of the third-largest party in the country
Asked about his support for ultranationalist Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, 19-year-old Israel Defense Forces soldier and first-time voter Lior Cohen felt bound to begin with a disclaimer.
“My family is all Likud and has been for years. They think Ben-Gvir is worthy, but that it’s not our job to vote for him,” he said, almost apologetically.
In many ways, this is a microcosm of Itamar Ben-Gvir’s journey from a politician known only to few (and then mainly for the legal protection he gave Jews accused of nationalistic hate crimes) to a close partner of Israel’s largest right-wing party, which until 2021 had ruled the country for more than a decade and will return to power again if the electoral winds are in its favor on Nov. 1.
In the last two years, Ben-Gvir has become one of the most popular politicians on the Israeli right. Despite his extreme views and very vocal racism towards Arabs, Ben-Gvir is at the moment among the handful of Knesset members about whom voters are still enthusiastic.
When he arrives at right-wing demonstrations and rallies, it’s common for crowds to flock around him chanting, “It’s the next prime minister” and “Death to Arabs” (a slogan he has recently amended to “Death to terrorists”). But despite this popularity, he is running as part of Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party as his own Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party was not guaranteed to pass the parliamentary threshold alone.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the head of Likud and de facto leader of the Israeli right, personally saw to it that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich struck a deal to unite their parties so that no right-wing votes would be lost to a party that did not make it across the threshold.
Cohen, voting for the first time, has his own reasons for supporting Israel’s most extreme-right politician.
“Every time I leave my base, not far from [the West Bank city of] Jenin, I feel like I’m a target. People are afraid to walk in the street, as they [Arabs – A.K.] can be everywhere. Israel has lost all deterrence, and Ben-Gvir is the only one who can return that power,” says Cohen.
“He’s the torch bearer of Rabbi Kahane, who I believe was right,” says the soldier of the US-born extremist cleric whose Kach party – a forerunner of Otzma Yehudit – was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s for racism.
It was inevitable that Cohen should mention Meir Kahane, given that Ben-Gvir was one of his most enthusiastic acolytes and for many years loudly proclaimed that he followed in his ideological footsteps.
During the current election campaign, Ben-Gvir has stated that he no longer supports Kahane’s ideology, but both his supporters and opponents still connect him to the extreme-right politician who pushed for discriminatory legislation against Arab citizens and called for a hard, violent hand against Palestinians in general. Kahane was shot dead in New York in 1990.
One party did seem to take Ben-Gvir’s statements seriously: opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who declared that “Ben-Gvir could be an excellent minister” in his next government. It is a far cry from the 1980s, when Likud MKs would walk out before then-Knesset member Kahane delivered a speech in parliament, in protest of his racist statements.
Yet Ben-Gvir’s rising popularity cannot be solely explained by validation from a mainstream party leader, which many attribute to Netanyahu’s desperate attempts to form a government and void his criminal trial at any cost.
His journey from outcast to legitimate candidate has also been eased by extensive media coverage. Ben-Gvir has been interviewed more than any other politician in Israel during the past year, all the while repeating his calls for Israel to harshen its policy towards terrorists, including using the death penalty and deportation of their families.
“Ben-Gvir says we can’t live with them in the same state, and that they shouldn’t be citizens. Frankly, I agree,” Cohen told The Media Line. “Arab Israelis should be checked, one by one, to understand who they are and what are they up to. Most of them should not be living with us.”
Cohen is not unusual among Ben-Gvir followers, according to Israel’s main election pollster.
“The general profile of Ben-Gvir supporters is young, first-time voters,” Camil Fuchs, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Statistics, told The Media Line.
According to Fuchs, while there’s still no in-depth analysis of the average Ben-Gvir voter, some characteristics are very common: young; first-time voter; already part of the right-wing-religious bloc.
Cohen, however, cast doubt on that last characterization. “Most of my friends are voting Ben-Gvir, including those who voted center-left in recent elections,” he said.
Fuchs also sees a connection between Ben-Gvir’s growing support and the global rise of the right wing.
“It’s a process we see in many countries, from Brazil to Hungary,” he said.
“People go right, and extreme right-wing movements around the globe get similar support rates in many countries. Politicians use xenophobia, incitement and nationalistic sentiments to gain support. In that sense, Israel doesn’t seem to be too unique,” he said.
Despite his support for Ben-Gvir, Cohen emphasizes he’s not voting solely for him and cites the politician’s poor behavior.
“Ben-Gvir doesn’t have what it takes to be prime minister. He doesn’t act like a member of Knesset. Waving his gun around – he has no class,” Cohen said.
He was referring to Ben-Gvir’s recent demonstration in the predominantly Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem, which has become a friction point between extreme Jewish settlers and Palestinians.
“I’m also voting also for Smotrich, who I think is a brilliant guy, and can do a lot because he’s quiet and efficient,” he added.
Ben-Gvir did not respond to questions from The Media Line, due, according to his spokesman, to scheduling difficulties.