TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir calls his Arab colleagues “terrorists.” He wants to deport his political opponents, and in his youth, his views were so extreme that the army banned him from compulsory military service.
Yet today, the populist lawmaker who was once relegated to the margins of Israeli politics is surging ahead in the polls ahead of November elections. He has received the blessing of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is poised to emerge as a major force that could propel the onetime premier back to power.
Ben-Gvir’s stunning rise is the culmination of years of efforts by the media-savvy lawmaker to gain legitimacy. But it also reflects a rightward shift in the Israeli electorate that has brought his religious, ultranationalist ideology into the mainstream and all but extinguished hopes for Palestinian independence.
“Over the last year I’ve been on a mission to save Israel,” Ben-Gvir recently told reporters. “Millions of citizens are waiting for a real right-wing government. The time has come to give them one.”
Ben-Gvir, 46, has been a fixture of Israel’s extreme right for more than two decades, gaining notoriety in his youth as a disciple of the late radical rabbi, Meir Kahane. He first became a national figure when he famously broke a hood ornament off then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car in 1995.
“We got to his car, and we’ll get to him too,” he said, just weeks before Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Kahane’s violent anti-Arab ideology -- which included calls to ban Jewish-Arab intermarriage and for the mass expulsion of Palestinians -- was considered so repugnant that Israel banned him from parliament and the U.S. listed his party as a terrorist group. Kahane himself was assassinated by an Arab assailant in New York in 1990.
But in recent years, his followers and some of his ideas have made their way to the Israeli mainstream — in large part thanks to Ben-Gvir.
He transitioned into politics last year after a career as a lawyer defending radical Jewish West Bank settlers. His intimate knowledge of the law has helped him test the boundaries of the country’s incitement laws and avoid sanctions that have prevented some of his closest associates from running in elections.
Ben-Gvir, for instance, calls Kahane “righteous and holy” but also says he doesn’t agree with everything his former mentor said. He's careful to limit his own calls for expulsion to those who engage in violence and lawmakers — Jewish or Arab — who he says undermine the state.
Before entering politics, he removed a photo of Baruch Goldstein -- a Jewish militant who gunned down 29 Palestinians in a mosque in 1994 -- from his living room. He no longer allows his supporters to chant “Death to Arabs” at political rallies. Instead, they are told to say, “Death to terrorists!”
Supporters say Ben-Gvir has changed, been misunderstood, or wrongly painted an extremist.
“People mature. People develop,” said Nevo Cohen, Ben-Gvir’s campaign manager. “They stuck a label on Ben-Gvir that is totally wrong.”
Ben-Gvir’s office turned down an interview request. But he makes frequent appearances on Israeli TV and radio, displaying a cheerful demeanor, quit wit and knack for deflecting criticism as he banters with his hosts.
He also has 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 largely religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who tend to have large families, and also come from the influential West Bank settler movement. Ben-Gvir himself lives in a hard-line settlement next to the West Bank city of Hebron, home to more than 200,000 Palestinians.
“He is a populist demagogue. He plays on the sentiments of hate and fear of Arabs,” said Shuki Friedman, an expert on Israel’s far right at the Jewish People Policy Institute. “He interviews well, he is good on camera and he has had plenty of screen time that has given him legitimacy.”
In the opposition over the past year, Ben-Gvir has positioned himself as a rabble rouser against the government -- the first ever to have an Arab party as a member. He publicly quarreled with Arab lawmakers in scenes captured on camera and widely broadcast.
In the tense run-up to last year’s Gaza war, he staged provocative visits to Arab neighborhoods, rallying ultranationalist supporters to confront Palestinians and assert “Jewish Power” — the name of his party.
He set up an outdoor parliamentary “office” in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem where Jewish settlers are trying to expel Palestinians from their homes, setting off a melee. He later called for police to use live fire against Palestinian protesters at a flashpoint holy site.
His surge in the polls has made him a central figure in Netanyahu’s comeback strategy.
Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and the public is again torn over his fitness to rule. After four consecutive inconclusive elections, Netanyahu and his Likud party hope to break the logjam with Ben-Gvir’s support.
“Yes, Ben-Gvir is someone very militant and yes, sometimes a little provocative, but he is someone who cares about Israel,” said Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu confidant Miki Zohar, who insisted Ben-Gvir would fall in line under a Netanyahu-led government.
Last week, Netanyahu personally brokered a deal between Ben-Gvir and a rival far-right leader, Bezalel Smotrich, to ensure they run together. If they hadn’t, Smotrich might not have made it into parliament, depriving Netanyahu of a critical source of support.
“Joining forces is the order of the day,” Netanyahu said.
One recent poll forecast Ben-Gvir’s alliance with 12 seats, which would make it parliament’s fourth-largest. That means Netanyahu almost certainly would make Ben-Gvir a Cabinet minister if he can form a government.
Ben-Gvir has said his first order of business would be to pass a law allowing deportations of those who allegedly subvert the country and its security forces. He has proposed imposing the death penalty for “terrorists” and granting immunity to soldiers accused of committing violent crimes against Palestinians.
Thabet Abu Rass, the Arab co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, which promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence, said the mainstreaming of figures like Ben-Gvir is not only a threat to Israel’s Arab citizens, but to the country as a whole.
By branding Arab members of parliament as traitors who should be expelled, Ben Gvir delegitimizes the political participation of Arab citizens — who make up around 20% of Israel's population — and the possibility of Jewish-Arab partnerships, Abu Rass said.
“It’s very dangerous for the whole Israeli society,” he said. “It’s going to bring about the collapse of democracy.”
By TIA GOLDENBERG Associated Press
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