Alex Traiman
Alex TraimanPhoto: JNS

(JNS) The rise of Itamar Ben-Gvir is one of the major storylines of Israel’s fifth election cycle in little more than three years. The political firebrand from the right flank of Israel’s political spectrum is soaring in popularity, with polls showing his Religious Zionist bloc garnering as many as 14 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

That would likely make the Religious Zionist Party the third-largest in the Knesset (behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid) and larger than the National Unity Party led by current Defense Minister and former Netanyahu challenger Benny Gantz. At 14 seats, Religious Zionist would be twice as large as the former Yamina Party was when its leader, Naftali Bennett, emerged as prime minister in an unlikely alignment after the previous election last year.

The bloc is a combination of three relatively small right-wing parties. The parties banded together to run in a technical bloc, to ensure that none of the three would fall below the 3.25 percent vote threshold for entering the parliament. The Religious Zionist bloc is led by former Minister of Transportation and longtime parliamentarian Bezalel Smotrich. Several other well-respected members of Knesset including Simcha Rothman and Orit Struk sit high on the candidates list. The list has four women in its top 20 positions.

Israel’s staunchly nationalist right-wing parties rarely surge to such high parliamentary numbers. But Ben-Gvir, No. 2 on the Religious Zionist list and head of the small Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Strength) faction, is capturing the populist wave in the current election campaign, in large part because Israel’s left-wing media have turned him into the top story. Ben-Gvir has become a regular guest on Israel’s political news programming.

At the same time as they invite him to air his views on live television, much of Israel’s left-leaning mainstream media (along with anti-Netanyahu politicians) have branded Ben-Gvir a “racist.”

Speaking to JNS, Ben-Gvir said, “Our Tanach [Bible] teaches us that we are from here, we have come back to our land. I am not a racist, I do not hate Arabs, I hate terrorists.”

The accusations against him are based on positions Ben-Gvir held in his early teenage and young adult activist days, decades ago. Ben-Gvir was an ardent supporter then of the teachings and principles of former Knesset member Meir Kahane, whose political party was later banned from the parliament due to its anti-Arab positions. As a Kahane supporter, Ben-Gvir was prohibited from serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Yet he contends that the media is doubling down on the message that he is a racist “in order to shoot the messenger, instead of allowing discourse on serious issues facing the Jewish state. We have a major Jihad problem on so many levels that our political leaders and security experts refuse to deal with head-on.”

He added, “I am the candidate saying that the emperor has no clothes and that we have some serious problems. They want to get rid of my message—and all of Israeli nationalism for that matter—so they call me a racist.”

Despite not serving in the military, Ben-Gvir is running on a platform of enhanced security for Israeli citizens.

The religious nationalist grew up in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret, raised in a mostly secular yet traditional family. Since that time, Ben-Gvir has become an observant Jew, married and a father of six, living in the Jewish settlement of Hebron, site of the biblical Cave of the Patriarchs where Jewish forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives, are buried.

He explained to JNS regarding his past, “I now have six kids. I am 46 years old. I came from a more radical tradition but I have matured since then. I have grown to understand better the precise problems I am trying to tackle. The problem is jihadism, which is a neo-Nazi-type movement of dangerous extremist enemies in our midst. In fact, it is the jihadism that suppresses regular Arabs living here. They too are looking to Israel to defeat this movement and provide greater security.”

Today, Ben-Gvir is a highly successful civil rights attorney who has tried numerous cases and won several before Israel’s Supreme Court. He has fought cases of police brutality against Jewish civilians and in defense of soldiers who faced imprisonment for taking action against terrorists and were wrongfully accused of violating the army’s strict rules of engagement.

In recent years, Ben-Gvir has attempted to moderate both his statements and his image. But for many Israelis on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, he has struggled to shake his reputation.

“They want to bury me as a way to strike at Jewish nationalism,” he said. “So instead of telling the voters what they are really against, they accuse me of being anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-Arab and everything else the liberal world stands for. They make me out to be their bogeyman instead of saying that they are against nationalist principles and greater security for Israeli citizens.”

Yet for many voters, his positions are an expression of common sense that has been missing from Israel’s political and security discourse.

Ben-Gvir said, “My vision is a proud, strong Jewish state. I have no problem with our minorities—provided they are law-abiding citizens—but I do have a problem with those who raise a hand against our police and soldiers.”

Many of Ben-Gvir’s views on Israel’s security resonate strongly with citizens who have seen risks to personal safety increase in recent years. In the past decade, thousands of illegal firearms including automatic assault rifles have been smuggled into Israel or manufactured locally, ending up in the hands of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria as well as in Arab-Israeli cities. Arab-on-Arab murder has soared in recent months, while Arabs rioted against Jews in mixed cities during a conflict in Gaza in May last year, without a harsh police response.

In the country’s northern and southern peripheries, Ben-Gvir explains that Israelis often pay mafia-style protection payments to local Bedouin to ensure their homes, businesses and equipment are not robbed, or worse. Rules of engagement for the army and police have become continuously stricter, with security personnel unable to open fire on terrorists—even in highly dangerous situations—unless they are actively being fired upon, putting their own lives at great risk.

Worse, he says, many of the terrorists captured by Israel sit together with fellow Arab murderers—some serving life sentences—in “country club” prison conditions, with televisions and cellphones, while receiving degrees from universities and stipends from the Palestinian Authority. In the past, prisoners including convicted murderers have been released as part of “peacemaking” gestures to the Palestinian Authority.

Ben-Gvir and his party are taking firm stances against terror and calling for loosening the strict rules of engagement in an attempt to restore waning deterrence. He calls for terrorists to be expelled from Israel, and for instituting the death penalty for those convicted of murder.

“Those who murder children should not see the light of day. I want to give strength to our army and police,” he said.

He hopes to become minister of public security in a future government.

“It is my goal to return security to the citizens of Israel, like [former mayor] Rudy Giuliani did in New York City. I want to change the rules of engagement so soldiers can shoot at anyone throwing Molotov cocktails. There needs to be immunity for soldiers and police who are on the front lines,” he said.

“We need to protect citizens and residents and bring back the sense of safety to Jews and Arabs alike. The only way we can do this is with a strong army and police, and security for all the people of Israel—regardless of their faith or race.”

In recent weeks, Ben-Gvir’s party has risen by several seats in the polls at the expense of Netanyahu’s more moderate Likud.

The rise is due in part to the feeling among many right-wing voters that they have been burned by moderate right-wing parties that ultimately formed coalitions with left-wing partners and sidelined right-wing priorities relating to Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and other issues, in favor of centrist or left-wing policies.

Such moderate right-wingers previously included Bennett, who shunned his national camp and the pro-Netanyahu right-wing bloc in favor of a rotation arrangement for prime minister with Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s progressive left-wing. The agreement sent most of the right-wing into the opposition and brought every single member of Israel’s left-wing into the coalition, along with a party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the storylines in that government was whether the Arab Ra’am Party would withdraw moral support for Hamas in favor of supporting Israeli military action in Gaza or Judea and Samaria.

Bennett’s government collapsed after barely a year when his own Yamina Party imploded under pressure from its right-wing voters. Bennett—now without a voter base—has announced he will resign from politics. And as part of the convoluted coalition agreement, it is the left-wing Lapid who is now serving as a caretaker interim prime minister, despite Israel having a large right-wing electoral majority.

Seeking to make sure that the left does not retain power, many nationalist voters are pinning their hopes on the farthest-right flank of the political spectrum to ensure their votes are not co-opted once again.

“Nationalism stands for God. It stands for patriotism. It stands for particularism. And it stands for strong defense. These are things that the Israeli left-wing is against. They are against a religious, biblical outlook, they are against nationalism. And they are against real defense,” Ben-Gvir said.

“One of the great mysteries of the world is why liberals have aligned with support of jihadis,” he quipped.

Ben-Gvir’s rise is sending shockwaves through Israel’s political system as well as close observers abroad, many of whom are concerned that a former Kahane supporter could be tapped as a senior minister if right-wing ally and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu re-emerges as prime minister.

Yet Ben-Gvir and right-wing voters are concerned that Netanyahu may shun his natural right-wing ally during coalition negotiations, instead choosing to govern with left-wing partners who may be willing to concede some of their demands for the opportunity to keep Ben-Gvir out of government.

“Likud needs a strong party to the right, to keep it on the right,” Ben-Gvir said. “Many Likud voters want a right-wing government that promotes Jewish values. And the only way that can happen is together with our party.”

Several U.S. politicians, including Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Brad Sherman—both longtime Israel supporters—have warned Netanyahu against forming a government with Ben-Gvir, while members of the American Jewish communal structure have warned that it will be difficult to defend Israeli positions to Democrats if Ben-Gvir is a senior minister.

Many worry that Ben-Gvir’s ascent will cause Israel diplomatic damage and that his statements and actions as a minister may inflame tensions in an already tense region, proving fears of his populism correct.

Those fears are largely fueled by continued media reports that Ben-Gvir is a racist. Yet, such statements can be damaging in their own right.

Israel is fighting constant battles for its legitimacy in multiple forums including the mainstream and social media, university campuses, state legislatures and within major corporations. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts against Israel are based on the false premise that Israel is a racist or apartheid state.

For many who know little about Israel’s diversity and thriving democracy, the flurry of articles accusing Ben-Gvir of racism can circulate much more broadly than the actual statements of a single member of a 120-member Knesset, who speaks little English.

Further, many outside of Israel simply do not know the difference between Lapid or any of his left-wing colleagues and the right-wing firebrand. All they process when quickly cycling through headlines in their newsfeeds is that right-wing racists are rising to power in Israel. The details are meaningless to them.

For Israel-haters, the very concept of a Jewish state can be labeled racist, despite the fact that Israel has a large Arab population with upward mobility, civil liberties and democratic representation.

It may be increasingly difficult for Israel to shake increasing accusations of racism even if the left-wing manages to retain power and Ben-Gvir and his right-wing allies are sent deep into the opposition.

In many respects, the accusations of racism are just as populist as the ideas Ben-Gvir peddles. And those accusations may pose an equal or greater threat to Israel than the right’s return to power or Ben-Gvir’s actual appointment as a minister.

Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.