Ben-Gvir Rides Again: The Israeli Election 2022

In a few days, the Israeli electorate will enter the polling booth for the fifth time in almost four years.

Once again, Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies will aspire to a bloc majority of 61 seats in the Knesset. The current polls suggest that it will be touch-and-go for Netanyahu to overcome his opponents, led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid. While the slow momentum appears to be with Lapid, Israeli opinion polls rarely reflect the final result.

Netanyahu will spend most of his election budget in these final days and — if past form is anything to go by — uttering an incendiary slogan to persuade the undecided and apathetic to vote for him.

The religious Zionist public — these days virtually genetically right-wing — holds the key to the result. Their support would ensure the movement of one or two crucial seats which would grant ascendency to its recipient.

The far-Right Religious Zionism party of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir has become a pivotal point of interest. It took the brand name to imply that they represented all religious Zionists.

Last Sunday, Netanyahu reversed his past appraisal of Ben-Gvir as being unfit for government in an interview on Israel’s Channel 14. In an about-turn, Netanyahu told his viewers that Ben-Gvir “can certainly” be a minister in his government.

On the same day, Israeli Television broadcast a tape of private comments made by Smotrich in which he called Netanyahu “the liar of all liars”. Recorded during the last year, Smotrich’s outrage was aimed at Netanyahu’s attempts to quietly make a deal with the Islamist Ra’am party while publicly — and vociferously — condemning Naftali Bennett and Lapid for allowing an Arab party to be part of an Israeli government for the very first time.

The departure of Bennett from politics and the disappearance of his party, Yamina, provides Religious Zionism with an opportunity to capture the entire constituency of religious Zionists. Bennett returned religious Zionist voters to their glory days of the National Religious Party when he took the Habayit Hayehudi party from three seats to 12 in the 2013 election. In subsequent years, he attempted to attract secular voters and form a broader constituency of supporters but incurred instead the wrath of many rabbis and party apparatchiks who feared such independent action.

In 2021, he led the anti-Netanyahu coalition of eight politically disparate parties into government as the first religious Zionist prime minister. This convinced some religious Zionists that Bennett was in reality “a dangerous Leftist” who was willing to betray his natural constituency. His absence from the electoral equation has left other religious Zionists without a political home.

Many will go with Smotrich and Ben-Gvir — and hold their nose as they vote. Religious Zionism expects 12 to 15 seats — more than double the number in the present Knesset. Others will go to Benny Gantz’s centrist National Unity party while only a few, it appears, will adhere to Ayelet Shaked’s Zionist Spirit party. She was Bennett’s long-time political partner but it looks like she will struggle to pass the 3.25% threshold to gain entry to the Knesset.

Many religious Zionists clearly have severe reservations about Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has eclipsed Smotrich as the public face of his Kahanist party. The alliance of the Likud with the Kahanists is a consequence of Netanyahu’s determination to ensure that not a single right-wing vote goes to waste through not passing the electoral threshold. If this means supping with the devil in order to attain power, then so be it.

Ben-Gvir, like Netanyahu, has a penchant for political promotion on the edge. Otzma Yehudit erected a prominent billboard on the busy Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv during the recent Jewish holidays. Featuring photographs of Ayman Odeh, Ahmed Tibi and Ofer Cassif — a group of Arab and left-wing Jewish critics of Religious Zionism — the billboard’s caption read: Yehi ratzon she’yistalku oy’veinu, which translates into “may our adversaries be removed”.

Left-wing secularists were outraged at such incitement against two prominent Arab politicians and a Jewish member of Hadash, formerly the Communist party. Right-wing religious Jews, however, recognised the caption as being recited at the opening of the Rosh Hashanah meal to represent one of the “omens”, the symbolic foods. The blessing in historical context recalled the hope of past generations of Diaspora Jews for a year free from persecution and a vanquishing of their enemies.

In this display of astute public sneering, Ben-Gvir taunted his agitated opponents but also warmly communicated to potential supporters his identification with Jewish tradition at the head of the new year.

Yet many religious Zionists recall Netanyahu’s apparent endorsement of the far-right campaign of incitement in 1995, just before Yitzhak Rabin’s murder. Many remember his seeming indifference to pictures of Rabin dressed as a Nazi gauleiter at a political rally — a rally at which shocked Likud leaders, David Levy and Dan Meridor, left early whereas Netanyahu decided to stay. Many remember Leah Rabin’s refusal to shake Netanyahu’s hand after the assassination of her husband.

As members of the Kahanist Kach party, Itamar Ben-Gvir and his associates were part of that summer of intimidation of Rabin. They were close to the Amir brothers and in 2007, Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel founded The Committee for Saving Democracy which produced a video calling for the pardoning of Yigal Amir, the man who murdered Rabin.

The portrait of Meir Kahane still features prominently in Ben-Gvir’s home, but he has removed one of Baruch Goldstein, the killer of 29 Muslim worshippers at the al-Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in 1994. These are the political idols before whom Ben-Gvir prostrates himself.

It is therefore quite remarkable how Ben-Gvir has moved from the shadows as a despised apologist to the brink of entering the government of Israel. His fellow traveller, Bezalel Smotrich, has eyes on the Ministry of Justice and the abolition of the general charges of fraud and breach of trust which are periodically aimed at Israeli politicians.

It is an open question whether any such measures, if passed, would now allow Netanyahu a “get-out-of-jail free” card to escape from his potential indictment in a Jerusalem court. As with Trump and the US Supreme Court, Smotrich has proposed the effective rejigging of the Judicial Selection Committee in Israel. At present, it is composed of five Supreme Court judges and four MKs. Smotrich wishes to alter the balance in favour of the members of Knesset.

In one sense, the prominence of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich is another example of Netanyahu’s career-long removal of any moral red lines in public life. It is a development which many believe profoundly contradicts both Jewish and Judaic values. It interprets particularism within Judaism as a narrow self-interested nationalism. It completely eliminates universalism within Judaism from the lexicon of Jewish leadership.

Lapid, Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir have one thing in common:  they are all good at public relations and selling an image or a narrative to anyone who wishes to listen. But what differentiates them is that the secularist Lapid has not forsaken the universalism in Jewish tradition. And the most pertinent yardstick in this regard is in attitudes towards the terrible events in Ukraine, with its echoes of the Jewish past.

Within the constraints of Russian anger and its potential for action against Israel in Syria, Lapid has followed India in refusing to recognise the referendum in the four occupied regions of Ukraine — a far cry from Netanyahu’s silence and his past acceptance of the annexation of Crimea.

Iran established a drone factory in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, last May to manufacture the Shahed-136 drones which can carry a 40kg payload. There are now Iranian advisers in the Crimea, teaching the Russian military how to use them. These “doodlebugs” of 2022, rebranded as Russian “Geranium 2” weapons, progressively demolish apartment blocks, hospitals and children’s playgrounds – and energy infrastructure – in order to freeze the Ukrainians into submission this coming winter.

In the past, Netanyahu rightly condemned the ayatollahs’ proliferation of nuclear weapons facilities as a direct threat to Israel but remained silent when it came to Iranian drones in Ukraine. Yet Hezbollah has been testing Israel’s military capability with Iranian drones on its northern border. As in Ukraine, a majority can be shot down, but it only requires a few members of the swarm to get through to create havoc.

Up until last week, Netanyahu had not uttered a word of condemnation about Russian conduct in Ukraine, not a scintilla of criticism. Yet in interviews with the American media just a few days ago, he appeared to implicitly criticise Putin’s policies and to hazily suggest that he would “look into arming Ukraine” once he was returned to the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu’s fuzzy comment came after reports that the loose alliance between Iran and Russia had become much tighter. Iran, it was reported, would supply the beleaguered Russian forces in Ukraine with ballistic missiles. This followed reports that Russia was transferring both troops and arms from Syria to Ukraine.

Netanyahu’s slight shift may signal to the Americans that Israel might no longer sit on the fence as far as Ukraine is concerned. It would also communicate to the Russians not to push Israel too hard — and into the arms of the Americans.

Lapid has walked the tightrope of learning to dance with the Russians. According to the New York Times, despite its refusal to supply aerial defence systems to Ukraine, Israel has quietly been providing intelligence on Iranian drones and satellite imagery of Russian troop movements. This evoked an acid response from Russia’s one time stand-in for Putin, Dmitry Medvedev.

At 73, Netanyahu probably realises that this election is his last throw of the dice. He does not like to be seen as ailing — as he was during Yom Kippur — or as an ageing grandfather of five. Figures within the Likud such as Yuli Edelstein and David Bitan are eagerly waiting to supplant him.

Diaspora Jewish organisations are waiting nervously for the outcome of this election. In the UK, former leaders of Bnei Akiva have criticised functionaries at Yeshivat Hakotel — a valued destination for yeshiva students — for aligning themselves with Religious Zionism.

Although US Jewish organisations have been somewhat muted on Ben-Gvir and Smotrich at present, there is absolutely no doubt that if they gained office in Israel, a severe rupture would follow. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in government would challenge the very understanding of many Jewish leaders of what it means to be Jewish.

Plus61j 25 October 2022

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