image Photo: Flash90

Far-right MK may be Israeli election ‘kingmaker’

The joint list co-headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir may garner sufficient mandates in the 1 November election to play a critical role in forming the next government.  

By Erin Viner

Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and Religious Zionism alliance may win as many as 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, according to recent public opinion polls. The joint list won 6 mandates in the 2019 elections.

Such a showing would transform the 46-year-old Member of Knesset (MK) into a potential kingmaker of the country’s future 37th coalition government.

The ultranationalist politician is a natural ally of Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who lost the premiership after failure to form a ruling coalition in spite of garnering the majority of votes in the last two Israeli elections.

Ben-Gvir’s emergence as a significant candidate may signal the end of years of political deadlock by enabling Netanyahu to form a rightwing bloc.

Local media reported that the former prime minister and Ben-Gvir agreed to coordinate their campaigns during a 12 October meeting. Five days later, however, Netanyahu appeared to avoid being photographed onstage with the Otzma Yehudit leader at a Simchat Torah event in Kfar Chabad.

The ultra-Orthodox resident of the  Judean Mountain city of Hebron is a polarizing figure in Israel – and abroad.

He was a youth coordinator of the far-right Kach party that was eventually outlawed by the Israeli government; and exempt from performance of compulsory military duty in the IDF over his extremist activities that once included calls for the expulsion of all Palestinians.

His lengthy police record – which he said in 2015 racked up to 53 indictments on criminal charges – includes a 2007 conviction for racist incitement. The Israel Bar Association denied his taking of the bar exam until the settlement of several outstanding cases. As an attorney, he gained notoriety for defending extremist Jewish activists accused of terrorism and hate crimes; also representing the far-right Lehava group opposed to Jewish intermarriage.

In an adaptation of his views, the MK said in 2019 that only Arabs who are not loyal to Israel must be deported. “I’m for equal rights. But whoever raises his hand against a soldier, whoever comes out against the State of Israel, whoever wants to turn this into Palestine – it’s not where they belong,” Ben-Gvir told Reuters during a campaign stop in Jerusalem.

The upcoming election will be Israel’s fifth in four years. In a previous round, Netanyahu had ruled out Ben-Gvir from joining his cabinet.

“I would do anything for him to be part of the government,” MK Miki Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant in the Likud party, said last month, while cautioning that Ben-Gvir would “have to adjust himself to Likud’s positions and to the government’s policy.”

Nomination of Ben-Gvir to a cabinet role would likely infuriate Palestinians and strain ties with the West.

“Look at Ben-Gvir’s history, his actions, his statements,” said an unnamed official at the administration of United States President Joe Biden, cited by the Israel Hayom newspaper in a front-page story, adding, “This is not someone we want to see as part of the government.” Ben-Gvir responded to the article by tweeting, “The Left is feeling the pressure – because we are headed for victory!”

The New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) advocacy group commented that Ben-Gvir’s prospective coalition role “would be corrosive to Israel’s founding principles, and its standing among its strongest supporters.”