The Israeli television archive contains a sequence showing Itamar Ben-Gvir's first public appearance. It's 1995 and Israel is fighting over the Oslo Peace Accords, which give the Palestinians their own state. Yitzchak Rabin, then Prime Minister, received the Nobel Peace Prize for it, but made many enemies in his own country.
During this heated time of protest, cameras film a young man, 19, proudly displaying a plaque. He tore it from Rabin's Cadillac, he says: "We got to his car - we can also reach him." Three weeks later, Rabin was murdered by a Jewish extremist.
Today Ben-Gvir is 46 years old and preparing to become a minister in the next government. His alliance of national-religious parties emerged from the election as the third strongest force. Two years ago, Ben-Gvir's Jewish Strength party got just 0.42 percent. Well, with "Religious Zionism," an alliance with two other far-right parties, it's more than ten percent.
It is the sensational success of this election. It is shocking news for leftists, liberals and moderate conservatives in Israel and abroad. The US government has already said it will not work with Minister Ben-Gvir. In the United Arab Emirates, voices are being raised to terminate the peace treaty with the Jewish state. The reason is the anti-Arab positions of his alliance. This includes the demand for the creation of an agency to “encourage” Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, to emigrate.
The West Bank, which the Palestinians claim as the basis for their own state, is to be completely annexed by Israel - but without granting the Palestinians living there the right to vote. The death penalty should be imposed on terrorists. If Ben-Gvir had his way, police officers would be allowed to open fire on Palestinian stone-throwers in the future. Israeli soldiers should generally be granted impunity during military operations.
With such positions, the religious Zionists got more than three times as many seats as the social-democratic Avoda, the party of the founding fathers from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin. Now there is much debate about Israel's “shift to the right”. But this is not a sudden development. For years, the majority of Israeli citizens have belonged to the right-wing camp. It is currently 60 percent; among young people even 70. Ben-Gvir's electoral success is just another step.
The rise of the former outsider began in May 2021, when the terrorist organization Hamas fired rockets from Gaza at Israeli metropolises and violent clashes broke out in Jewish-Arab communities. Arabs set fire to synagogues and cars and attacked Jews with stones. Jews beat up Arabs and threw incendiary devices into Arab shops. Cities that were considered models of peaceful co-existence suddenly resembled war zones.
During this period, Ben-Gvir became the most-interviewed politician. His call for expelling "disloyal Arabs" gained popularity. The marked increase in Palestinian terrorist attacks in the last year, in which more than 20 Israelis have died, further fueled the mood. Added to this is a rebellion by young ultra-Orthodoxes against the traditional religious parties. They apparently see an alternative in the alliance of religious Zionists that comes close enough to their views.
Last but not least, the rise of the ultra-right alliance is due to two politicians: Naftali Bennett, the leader of what had been the most right-wing party in parliament to date, who decided to govern as prime minister with the centre-left and an Arab party – instead of with Netanyahu. The grand coalition to heal the cracks in Israeli society. Instead, she unintentionally deepened the division.
But the radical right was made socially acceptable by the Likud politician Netanyahu. Before the 2021 election, he hooked up the three right-wing parties that threatened to fail at the 3.25 percent hurdle so as not to lose a vote for the right-wing camp. So Ben-Gvir, who was considered a "sleazeball", entered the Knesset, which gave him legitimacy and publicity. Even some of Netanyahu's party friends think his alliance with the right-wing extremist goes too far.
Another scene from the TV archive illustrates the dimension of this change: Itamar Ben-Gvir is the political heir of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose movement was banned as a terrorist organization in the USA and Israel. That was long ago. In 1984, against the background of a massive financial crisis and the failed war in Lebanon, Kahane entered the Knesset. There he introduced a bill that would strip non-Jews of citizenship. Arab residents should either pay a special tax or be deported. Another law forbade non-Jews from living with Jews. But that was blocked by the conservative Likud together with Awoda. When Kahane spoke, Likud MPs walked out of the plenary in protest. Now they want to rule with someone who calls Kahane his personal "hero".
Itamar Ben-Gvir claims that he has now distanced himself from his earlier extremist positions. He regrets the episode with Rabin's car. Had he actually "caught" Mr. Rabin, he would have just yelled at him. Ben-Gvir recently instructed his supporters to chant "Death to the Terrorists" instead of "Death to the Arabs".