With revelers in the electrically excited crowd proclaiming him ‘king’ and scrambling to catch a glimpse of Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, a party election night attendee could have been forgiven for thinking the extreme right had won the Israeli elections on Tuesday. And while Ben Gvir, who doesn’t even lead his joint Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit slate, won’t be prime minister this fall, in many ways he won the night.
In two years, Ben Gvir has gone from ineligible bogeyman to Cinderella story, garnering countless votes in favor of religious Zionism and making it the third party in the Knesset and a likely coalition partner, if current projections are maintained.
Along the way, he softened his inflammatory rhetoric, but not his stances, bringing his extremist view of what it means for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state into the mainstream.
Former prime minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to form the next government, paving the way for his return to power by linking Ben Gvir to an alliance with religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich and the anti-LGBT Noam party, thereby guaranteeing the number maximum far-right votes to strengthen his alliance.
In early results showing it contributing up to 15 of the Likud-led bloc’s projected 62-65 seats, Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit will be the second-largest party in Netanyahu’s right-religious coalition. From this lofty position, he is prepared to demand far-reaching ministries and political initiatives that can shape what this means for Israel’s self-conception as a Jewish and democratic state.
Ben Gvir said Sunday he planned to ask the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees Israel’s police and internal security. Although he was fired from enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces for his ultra-nationalist views as a teenager, Ben Gvir has carved out a platform for himself to staunchly defend IDF soldiers. As part of his promises if appointed police minister, he would push for immunity for security officials, as well as relaxing IDF live-fire guidelines.
Ben Gvir, who adored Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, also pushed for the deportation of ‘disloyal’ citizens and Arabs who attack IDF soldiers, as well as the death penalty for terrorists, a measure also supported by some members of the outgoing coalition.
Ben Gvir’s focus on public safety feeds on concerns of violence following last year’s riots in mixed Arab-Jewish towns, which erupted during the May 2021 conflict with the terror group Hamas in Gaza, and a recent resurgence of terror in the West Bank. With security a major issue for many, Ben Gvir’s tough approach to Arab violence has made him a popular vote-giver, especially among right-wing Israelis, said Yair Sheleg, a national religious policy expert at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. .
But Ben Gvir’s views on security are often seen as incitement, especially by Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians, whose politicians have denounced him and his party. Underscoring the point, several Otzma Yehudit supporters chanted “death to terrorists” – with “terrorist” sometimes used as a euphemism for Arabs – during the party’s celebration on Tuesday night.
Netanyahu, for his part, went in the space of a year from saying Ben Gvir was unfit to be a minister, to saying in mid-October that he “certainly can” be one, to declaring on Monday that he did not “disqualify” Ben Gvir’s candidacy for police minister – although he noted there were multiple candidates.
Saluting his supporters after his Banners Night, Ben Gvir – who was voted the dominant figure in Religious Zionism – Otzma Yehudit despite Smotrich being its leader – said that “it is time for us to once again become the master of the home in our own state,” echoing oft-repeated campaign declarations that Jews must reassert their sovereignty in Israel.
Otzma Yehudit’s platform – now removed from its site – had called for encouraging undefined “enemies” of the state to emigrate.
His territorially maximalist view also calls for Israel to assert control over the Temple Mount flashpoint — where the current status quo blocks non-Muslim prayer — and the West Bank, which Ben Gvir and his allies have pushed to absorb. in Israel, without extending equal rights or citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there.
Incendiary politicians are used to moderating their views once in government, and Ben Gvir also opted for more conciliatory rhetoric, saying on Wednesday that although he is committed to an “all right-wing government”, he plans to ” to work for all of Israel, even those who hate me.
Controlling five of the top 10 seats on the list, and 13th and 15th should the party win that many votes, Otzma reportedly considered conducting coalition talks separately from religious Zionism, though Smotrich brushed off the possibility on Israeli television Wednesday. .
Smotrich has shown interest in the defense, finance and justice departments. Likud has said it wants to keep the top two — considered leadership positions — within its own party, leaving justice as the most likely portfolio for the party leader.
Smotrich has mocked the current justice system as “sick,” and the Religious Zionism party has pushed for a sweeping judicial reform package that reflects some of Likud’s political goals.
Foremost among these are reforms that would exercise greater political control over the judiciary, primarily by creating a mechanism for the Knesset to override High Court vetoes on legislation deemed unconstitutional, as well as transferring all judicial appointments to political control by wrapping the nine-member appointments commission made up of six political figures.
Critics have accused Smotrich and other proponents of judicial reform on his side of wanting to flout the system instead of reforming it, as Smotrich insists the reforms are necessary to keep Israel a “Jewish state.” and democratic”.
Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners will likely support the effort, who have long backed judicial reforms that will weaken what many in their communities perceive as a militant court interfering with their religiously-guided way of life.
Likud and its top officials have also backed a series of similar reforms in recent years, including moving Supreme Court appointments under government control with Knesset approval, and allowing struck down laws to be reinstated as unconstitutional. with a majority of 61 deputies.
The most cynical accusation against the ascendant bloc’s judicial reform efforts is that they could be used to extricate Netanyahu from his ongoing corruption trial.
Smotrich said his party wants to overturn the criminal charge of fraud and breach of trust, which applies to public officials who exercise influence knowing they are receiving a benefit in return, and is used in cases that do not reach the level of corruption. Legal experts, including Netanyahu critic Mordechai Kremnitzer, have attacked the accusation as too vague.
But if the charge were removed from Israel’s criminal code, it would potentially overturn three of the four counts Netanyahu is on trial for, leaving only his corruption charge.
While religious Zionism says it has no intention of using the reforms to find a way out of Netanyahu’s legal troubles — and Likud and Netanyahu are equally adamant — political opponents have been skeptical.
Ben Gvir, on the other hand, said he would push for the passage of a so-called French law, which would prevent a sitting prime minister from criminally prosecuting.
Others have raised the proposal in the past, though critics have noted that France also has a rule that would keep Netanyahu out of power anyway: term limits.