Wednesday, 28 Feb 2024

Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir?

He was barred as a teenager from serving in the Israeli Army because he was considered too extremist. He admires a hard-line rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship. Until recently, he hung a portrait in his home of Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a rising far-right lawmaker, had long occupied the fringes of Israeli politics and been widely vilified for his extreme views. But last year he became a major player in Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to regain power and his party, Jewish Power, became a key part of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

On Monday, Mr. Ben-Gvir’s influence was underscored by his initial opposition to — and then grudging blessing of — Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to delay, at least temporarily, the divisive judicial overhaul that had led to widespread protests.

At the last election, in 2021, Mr. Ben-Gvir’s alliance had only scraped into Parliament. In November 2022, it became a key member of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition. To secure Mr. Ben-Gvir’s support, the Israeli leader appointed him minister in charge of the police.

While right-wing dominance of Israeli politics is not new, Mr. Ben-Gvir’s rise illustrates how Mr. Netanyahu’s camp has become more extreme and religious.

Israel’s New Far-Right Government

Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to power at the helm of the most right-wing and religiously conservative administration ever in Israeli history.

As his traditional allies abandoned him, Mr. Netanyahu — though secular himself — was forced to forge a stronger bond with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. And though wary of appearing in public with them, he has become more reliant on ultranationalists like Mr. Ben-Gvir.

That has made the government dependent on a lawmaker who, in addition to trying to upend Israel’s judicial system, wants to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinians and deport rival lawmakers he accuses of terrorism.

For more than a quarter-century, Mr. Ben-Gvir, 46, was relevant only on Israel’s far-right fringe. In 1995, he was filmed holding an emblem ripped from the car of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the Oslo peace accords.

“Just as we got to this emblem, we’ll get to Rabin,” he said at the time. Mr. Rabin was later assassinated; Mr. Ben-Gvir had no connection to his murder.

Mr. Ben-Gvir has been an admirer of Meir Kahane, an Israeli American extremist assassinated in 1990 who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship, segregate Israeli public space, and ban marriage between Jews and non-Jews.

Today, Mr. Ben-Gvir still calls Mr. Kahane “a hero,” but has distanced himself from Mr. Kahane’s most extreme policies.

“I have no problem, of course, with the minorities here,” he said in a brief voice message last year, after declining a full interview. “But whoever is a terrorist, whoever commits terror — and anyone who wants jihad and to annihilate Jews, and not only that, also hurts Arabs — I have a problem with him.”

In other interviews, he has said he has become more moderate.

The portrait of Mr. Goldstein, who killed the Palestinians in 1994, no longer hangs in Mr. Ben-Gvir’s home. He regrets the episode involving Mr. Rabin’s car, he said in September. If he had actually “got to” Mr. Rabin himself, he would have only shouted at him, Mr. Ben-Gvir added.

He has told his supporters to chant, “Death to terrorists,” instead of, “Death to Arabs.” He does not support expelling all Arabs, only those he calls terrorists.

“This is a Jewish country,” he said in his voice message. But, he added, “I also want this country to be a safe country for all its citizens.”

The sincerity of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s shift was placed in doubt in September by a senior member of his party, Jewish Power. In a leaked video, that party member, Almog Cohen, appeared to present his leader’s moderation as an election ploy.

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