The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How media exposure helped propel Israel’s far right to election triumph

Far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, waving an Israeli flag at his office in Jerusalem on Wednesday, received a lot of airtime ahead of his country's parliamentary elections. (Oren Ziv/AP)
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TEL AVIV — To the many Israelis shocked by the meteoric rise of Itamar Ben Gvir, an anti-Arab far-right politician set to be at the center of Israel’s next government, media analysts offer a simple explanation: excessive airtime.

“He got media coverage with no comparison to any other politician or candidate in Israel,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank.

Even former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will use Ben Gvir’s votes to return to power, said the media coverage of him was overblown. The day before the polls opened, Ben Gvir was interviewed on four consecutive talk shows on one Israeli channel alone. In total, Ben Gvir garnered 100 hours of airtime in 2021, far more than any other politician, according to Darkenu, an Israeli nongovernmental organization promoting political moderation.

And with every TV appearance, radio spot and social media post, his formerly fringe positions — expel “disloyal” Arab and Jewish citizens, allow Israeli soldiers to shoot to kill alleged Palestinian assailants, overhaul the country’s judicial system — became normalized, said Nadav Eyal, an Israeli columnist with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

For the media stations, “giving him a preposterous share of exposure was sensationalism,” he said. “With him on a panel, you could always have a feisty discussion.”

As the vote count concluded Thursday, Religious Zionism — the far-right slate for which Ben Gvir serves as second-in-command but is its star attraction — won 14 seats, which will make it the second-largest bloc in the expected ruling coalition and the third-largest in the Knesset.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid conceded to Netanyahu after his center-left bloc finished with only 51 seats. Meretz, Israel’s most traditional left-wing party that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, did not even pass the four-seat threshold.

Netanyahu’s bloc won 64 seats in total, and he was racing through coalition negotiations Thursday with his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox partners in hopes of swiftly reassuming power.

For the first time in four years of political paralysis, Israel is expecting a relatively stable government, paradoxically, thanks to Ben Gvir — a political provocateur who built a career coaching young Israelis who attacked Palestinians on the best tactics for escaping punishment by the state.

His base, made up of many of those young extremists, began coalescing in May 2021, amid a war in Gaza and a wave of violent clashes in mixed Arab-Jewish cities.

Arabs torched synagogues and hurled stones. Jews threw molotov cocktails at Arab-owned cars and homes. Fistfights broke out, stabbings were common, and towns that once coexisted in relative peace were transformed into conflict zones.

Ben Gvir appeared in the more than 100 Telegram and WhatsApp groups that functioned as organizing platforms for far-right Israelis planning to attack Arab citizens, homes and businesses.

“The number one face you saw in these groups was Itamar Ben Gvir,” said Achiya Schatz, CEO of FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog organization that tracks disinformation.

He also popped up on prime-time news panels, stoking fears of lawlessness and calling for support in the streets. “The person who is responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir,” said Kobi Shabtai, Israel’s chief of police.

This year, those messaging groups morphed into a get-out-the-vote platform for Ben Gvir’s campaign, Schatz said.

Thousands of young Israelis flocked to Ben Gvir events in schools, yeshivas and event halls, which sometimes drew counterprotests and often coincided with security flare-ups throughout the country.

In a demonstration last week in Tel Aviv, Ben Gvir supporters shouted, “Death to terrorists!” The next day, a 54-year-old Palestinian man attempted to use his car to ram through a group of soldiers. He was killed on-site.

On Thursday morning, a 20-year-old Palestinian stabbed police officers in Jerusalem. Israeli forces killed the attacker, along with two other Palestinians, including an alleged Islamic Jihad militant, in an army raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. An ongoing Israeli military crackdown in the West Bank has put 2022 on track to be the deadliest year for Palestinians there since the United Nations began keeping records in 2005.

Ben Gvir has said that, once in power, he will demand to head the Internal Security Ministry, and to show “who the landlords of this country are.”

Mainstream media did not take Ben Gvir seriously enough as a candidate, said Zvi Reich, chair of the department of communications at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Rather than investigations into Ben Gvir’s ideology and the forces powering his movement, much of the coverage responded to news incidents he manufactured.

In one recent example, he brandished a gun while visiting an East Jerusalem neighborhood that had seen clashes between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.

“He presents a very classic problem that now is seen in many places around the world, where you have populists who are very, very smart in their media management,” Reich said. Ben Gvir is adept at creating “situations in which the media would lose both if they ignore them or if they cover them.”

In Reich’s eyes, the ultimate responsibility for creating the Ben Gvir phenomenon lies with politicians, especially Netanyahu.

“Basically, it starts and ends up with politics, not with media,” he said. “So since Netanyahu approved him and supported him, and since he was wrapped very smartly under a broader, ‘legitimate’ umbrella of the Religious Zionist Party — this is how he got his political legitimacy.”

Biden administration officials voiced concerns to Israeli President Isaac Herzog during his visit to Washington last week about the inclusion of far-right figures in the next government, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported Wednesday for the news site Walla.

“We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday.

Tom Nides, U.S. ambassador to Israel, called to congratulate Netanyahu on Thursday and “told him I look forward to working together to maintain the unbreakable bond,” he tweeted.

Analysts say Ben Gvir’s use of free airtime was reminiscent of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Like Trump, and other far-right politicians across the world, Ben Gvir may struggle as he transitions from being a television personality to a government official.

“His day job for the past 30 years was provocateur,” said Eyal, the Israeli columnist. “Now the question is, can he be a real politician?”