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Israel election: A far-right politician moves closer to power

Itamar Ben Gvir, center, a far-right Israeli lawmaker and the head of the Jewish Power party, visits a market where his supporters gathered Friday in Tel Aviv during his campaign ahead of the country's election. (Oded Balilty/AP)

TEL AVIV — This liberal neighborhood of hipster cafes and bike paths in the center of Israel’s coastal tech hub is not supposed to be a stomping ground for the likes of Itamar Ben Gvir, one of the country’s most extreme right-wing politicians. But here, a week before national elections, a boisterous group of supporters was waiting for him to arrive at a rally.

Several dozen backers held banners and traded insults with a similarly sized group of protesters: “Racists, go home!” vs. “Our time has come!” Many of his supporters were as young as the urbanites zipping by on electric scooters.

“I like how radical he is,” Noam Maor-El, 17, said of the pistol-packing lawyer who built his career defending Jewish settlers accused of violence and who has advocated expelling “disloyal” citizens, including leftists and Palestinians, from Israel. “This is what Israel needs right now.”

For decades, Ben Gvir was a political untouchable. His roots in the overtly racist Kach party — founded by a radical American rabbi, Meir Kahane, and banned by Israel — put him beyond the fringe of even the most right-wing parties. That changed last year when then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had lost his governing coalition and was desperate for a few more parliamentary votes, invited Ben Gvir into his alliance.

Netanyahu downplayed his maneuver, largely dismissing Ben Gvir as a backbencher who wouldn’t play a major role in government.

What a difference a year makes. As Israelis head to the polls yet again on Nov. 1 for the fifth time in less than four years, the bit player has become a marquee attraction.

Ben Gvir is drawing attention not just in the West Bank settlements where he is a hero to many, but also in ultra-Orthodox communities and suburban centers. At a high school in Ramat Gan, known for its political activism, some students protested his appearance but others greeted him with the anti-Arab chant: “May your village burn!”

The surging Ben Gvir is hailed by modern-day Kahanists as the messenger who makes their ideology palatable to new audiences, a telegenic teddy bear who can brandish his sidearm in an Arab neighborhood at night and banter about it during a cooking spot on a morning news show. He garnered more airtime in 2021 than any other Knesset member, according to one media analysis.

“Netanyahu opened the door for Ben Gvir to participate in mainstream politics,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Now he is becoming a force.”

Polls suggest that Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party, which is running jointly with two other far-right parties, is on track to win 14 or 15 seats, Plesner said. That would probably make the combined party the third largest in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, after Netanyahu’s Likud and Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

Netanyahu, who appears close to returning to power as prime minister, has not ruled out making Ben Gvir a cabinet minister, a prospect that sends chills through a political establishment that has blackballed the ultranationalist since he was a teenager.

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As a provocateur, Ben Gvir was a prodigy. The “David Duke of Israel,” as one commentator dubbed him, first came to prominence as a 19-year-old in 1995 in the wake of a peace deal with the Palestinians signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. An outraged Ben Gvir brandished a car ornament reportedly ripped from Rabin’s Cadillac and said: “We got the car. We’ll get to Rabin, too.”

Weeks later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist. Ben Gvir was not connected to the killing, though he campaigned for the assassin’s release from prison. He has been prosecuted for inciting violence and was known to keep on his wall a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.

As his profile has grown, Ben Gvir has softened his rhetoric, if not his ideology. He has distanced himself from Kahane, whom he used to call “a hero,” and said his calls to deport Palestinians have been exaggerated.

“We don’t have a fight with every Arab who lives in Judea and Samaria,” said Ben Gvir, using the biblical names for the West Bank, in a voice message sent to The Washington Post in response to questions about his stances. “If an Arab lives here and recognizes the state of Israel, ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ [‘Welcome,’ in Arabic]. No problem with them. But anyone who wants to destroy, to throw stones, to throw molotov cocktails — we’re at war with them.”

For some of his new, young followers, the inflammatory language is what draws them, at a time when tensions between Jews and Palestinians are on the rise.

Daniel Levy, 19, came to see Ben Gvir in Tel Aviv from Bat Yam, a beach town to the south with a large Palestinian population. His friendship with Palestinian neighbors and schoolmates largely ended after riots broke out in mixed communities such as his during the 2021 Gaza war.

“Now I see that there is no normal Arab person,” said Levy, raising his voice to be heard over the shouting match between Ben Gvir supporters and protesters. “I had Arab friends who were part of all that. We have to fight back, and Ben Gvir is here to lead.”

The rapid normalization of Ben Gvir has many of Israel’s supporters abroad ringing alarms over the rise of “racist, homophobic fanatics,” as the editor of a Jewish newspaper in Britain put it.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a stalwart Israel backer in Congress, reportedly warned Netanyahu that Ben Gvir’s presence in a future government could harm American-Israeli relations. The New York-based Israel Policy Forum deplored the idea of Ben Gvir serving as a cabinet minister as “contrary to Zionism’s principles of fundamental justice and equality.”

But some American Jewish groups that condemned Ben Gvir in the past have gone silent as he nears the center of power. The American Jewish Committee, which described the views of Ben Gvir’s party as “reprehensible” as recently as 2019, said in an email Tuesday that the group would have no comment on his alliance with Netanyahu and his rise in the polls.

Some American Jewish leaders, including Israel Policy Forum head Susie Gelman, are beseeching others to take a stand.

“It takes an excessive measure of cognitive dissonance to condemn displays of racist supremacy at home as American citizens while dismissing similar displays as irrelevant or beyond our legitimate concerns when they so prominently occur in the Jewish state that is our historical homeland,” Gelman wrote in the Times of Israel.

At the rally, as his friends tore down campaign posters for one of Ben Gvir’s opponents, Maor-El defended his candidate’s extremism. Netanyahu, whom his family has backed for years, wasn’t tough enough to take on the Palestinians, he said.

“The Arabs are radical; they want to kill us,” he said. “We need Ben Gvir to balance it out.”

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