TEL AVIV, Israel (Associated Press) – Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir has described his fellow Arabs as “terrorists.” He wants to expel his political opponents, and in his youth his views were so extreme that the army banned him from compulsory military service.
However, the populist lawmaker who was once relegated to the margins of Israeli politics is today leading in the opinion polls ahead of the November elections. He has received the blessing of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is ready to emerge as a major force that can restore the former prime minister to power.
Bin Juffair’s astonishing rise is the culmination of years of efforts by the media-savvy lawmaker to gain legitimacy. But it also reflects a right-wing shift in the Israeli electorate that has brought its ultra-nationalist and religious ideology into the mainstream, and has decimated all hopes for Palestinian independence.
“For the past year I have been on a mission to save Israel,” Ben Gvir recently told reporters. Millions of citizens are waiting for a real right-wing government. It’s time to give them one.”
Ben Jvir, 46, was a staple of the Israeli far-right for more than two decades, gaining fame in his youth as a disciple of the late radical rabbi Meir Kahane. He first became a national figure when he became famous for breaking the hood of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car in 1995.
“We got to his car, and we’ll get to him,” he said, just weeks before Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Kahane’s violent anti-Arab ideology – which included calls for a ban on intermarriage between Jews and Arabs and the mass expulsion of Palestinians – was deemed so abhorrent that Israel banned him from entering parliament and the United States listed his party as a terrorist group. Kahane himself was assassinated by an Arab attacker in New York in 1990.
But in recent years, his followers and some of his ideas have made their way into the mainstream in Israel – thanks in large part to Ben Gvir.
He moved into politics last year after working as a lawyer defending ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers in the West Bank. His close knowledge of the law helped him test the limits of the country’s sedition laws and avoid the penalties that prevented some of his closest aides from running in elections.
Ben Juffair, for example, describes Kahane as “good and holy” but also says he disagrees with everything his former mentor said. He is careful to limit his calls for expulsion to those who engage in violence and lawmakers – Jews or Arabs – who he says undermine the state.
Before entering politics, he removed a picture of Baruch Goldstein – a Jewish activist who shot 29 Palestinians dead in a mosque in 1994 – from his living room. His supporters are no longer allowed to chant “Death to Arabs” at political rallies. Instead, they are asked to say, “Death to the terrorists!”
Supporters say Ben Gvir has been altered, misunderstood, or mischaracterized to an extreme.
“People are mature. “People are evolving,” said Nevo Cohen, Ben Juffair campaign manager. “They flagged Ben Juffair completely wrong.”
Bin Juffair’s office refused an interview request. But he has appeared frequently on Israeli television and radio, exhibiting cheerful demeanor, and quitting wit and ingenuity to dodge criticism while flirting with his hosts.
He has also tapped into a wave of anti-Arab and nationalist sentiment driven by years of violence, failed peace efforts and demographic changes. Ben Gvir’s supporters are mostly religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who tend to have large families, and also belong to the influential settler movement in the West Bank. Ben Gvir himself lives in a hard-line settlement near the West Bank city of Hebron, home to more than 200,000 Palestinians.
He is a populist demagogue. “It plays on feelings of hatred and fear of Arabs,” said Shuki Friedman, an expert on the Israeli far-right at the Institute for Jewish People’s Policy. “He did the interviews really well, he’s good in front of the camera and he had a lot of screen time which gave him legitimacy.”
In opposition over the past year, Ben Gvir has positioned himself as a rallying cry against the government – the first ever Arab party to be a member of it. He publicly quarreled with Arab lawmakers over the widely broadcast and on-camera scenes.
In the run-up to last year’s Gaza war, he made provocative visits to Arab neighborhoods, rallying ultra-nationalist supporters to confront the Palestinians and asserting “Jewish power” – the name of his party.
He has established an open-air parliamentary “office” in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem where Jewish settlers are trying to evict Palestinians from their homes, resulting in a clash. He later called on the police to use live ammunition against Palestinian demonstrators in a disturbed holy place.
His rise in the polls made him a central figure in Netanyahu’s comeback strategy.
Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and the public is once again at a loss for his eligibility to rule. After four consecutive inconclusive elections, Netanyahu and his Likud party hope to break the deadlock with Ben Gvir’s support.
“Yes, Ben Gvir is a very hard-line person and yes, sometimes a bit provocative, but he is someone who cares about Israel,” said Likud MP and Netanyahu confidant Miki Zohar, who insisted that Ben Gvir would fall in line with the Netanyahu-led government.
Last week, Netanyahu personally brokered a deal between Ben Gvir and a rival far-right leader, Bezalel Smotrich, to ensure they walked together. If they had not, Smotrich may not have made it to Parliament, depriving Netanyahu of an important source of support.
“Uniting forces is the order of the day,” Netanyahu said.
A recent poll predicted that Ben Gvir’s coalition would gain 12 seats, which would make it the fourth largest coalition in parliament. This means that Netanyahu will almost certainly make Ben Gvir a cabinet minister if he can form a government.
Ben Gvir said his first act would be to pass a law allowing for the deportation of those allegedly undermining the country and its security forces. He proposed imposing the death penalty on “terrorists” and granting immunity to soldiers accused of violent crimes against Palestinians.
Thabet Abu Ras, Arab co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, which promotes coexistence between Jews and Arabs, said the incorporation of figures like Ben Gvir is not only a threat to Israel’s Arab citizens, but to the state as a whole.
By labeling Arab members of parliament as traitors who should be expelled, Ben Gvir is delegitimizing the political participation of Arab citizens – who make up about 20% of Israel’s population – and the possibility of partnership between Jews and Arabs, according to Abu Ras.
“It is very dangerous for the entire Israeli society,” he said. “It will lead to the collapse of democracy.”