TEL AVIV – Once deemed a pariah in Israel’s political arena, extreme-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir may play a decisive role in the country’s next government.
With his round glasses and white kippa placed crookedly atop his greying hair, the 46-year-old Mr Ben-Gvir presents an affable figure.
But to his detractors, the lawyer-turned-lawmaker is a pyromaniac whose politics threaten to set the country ablaze.
“I’ve changed,” he told AFP from a palatial apartment in Tel Aviv in the run-up to Tuesday’s poll. “When I said 20 years ago that I wanted to expel all the Arabs, I don’t think that anymore. But I will not apologise.”
Elected to Parliament in April 2021, Mr Ben-Gvir heads the Jewish Power party and has spent years campaigning for the extreme right.
He has won supporters nationwide, as part of an extreme-right Religious Zionism alliance with Bezalel Smotrich.
Initial projections following Tuesday’s vote put Religious Zionism on track to take an estimated 14 seats in the 120-member Parliament – double their current seven. That could make them the third-biggest alliance in Parliament, potentially putting Mr Ben-Gvir in prime position to demand a Cabinet seat in a prospective government led by former premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s time we go back to being masters of our country,” Mr Ben-Gvir, who wants to be public security minister, said in a victory speech two hours after polls closed.
He attributed his party’s meteoric rise to a lack of security in Israel amid rising Palestinian attacks.
“People want to walk safely down the street, that the hands of our soldiers and policemen are not bound,” he said, reiterating a call for officers to use more force against Palestinians. “People want to make a clear distinction between those who are loyal to the state of Israel… and those who act to undermine the existence of our dear country.”
Mr Ben-Gvir’s platform includes supporting the Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank, home to around 2.9 million Palestinians, and the forcible transfer of some of the country’s Arab-Israeli population.
In his youth, Mr Ben-Gvir was charged more than 50 times for incitement to violence or hate speech. He boasts that he got off 46 times and studied law on the recommendation of judges, to learn how to defend himself.
Now one of the most prominent figures in Israeli politics, the father-of-six lives in a radical settlement in the West Bank and frequently appears at scenes of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘Save the country’
Just weeks ahead of Tuesday’s election, he brandished a gun in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, amid clashes between Palestinian residents and Israeli forces and citizens.
The next day, Mr Ben-Gvir published a photo standing beside two of his children, holding toy guns.
“After the riots… I’m teaching the children how to act with terrorists,” he wrote on Twitter.
The extreme-right leader also appears frequently at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount, shouting: “The people of Israel live!”
The compound, the most sacred site in Judaism and the third-holiest site in Islam, is the epicentre of tensions in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Mr Ben-Gvir, whose chin is often peppered with stubble, argues he is “here to save the country”.
As a lawyer, Mr Ben-Gvir represented Israeli clients such as settlers accused of violence. They included those implicated in the 2015 firebombing of a Palestinian home in the West Bank that killed a baby and his parents.
There is no such thing as a Palestinian people for Mr Ben-Gvir, who speaks of an “existential crisis for the survival of the Jewish people”.
‘Feeds on fear’
Mr Ben-Gvir’s path to political influence has, however, seen him tone down some of his messages. Instead of “death to Arabs!”, Mr Ben-Gvir now chants “death to terrorists!”
Born in the Jerusalem suburbs to Sephardic parents, his anti-Arab rhetoric was inspired by the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement Mr Ben-Gvir campaigned for.
Mr Kach was banned in Israel after Baruch Goldstein, a Kahane sympathiser, killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at a mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Mr Ben-Gvir, who lives in Hebron, used to hang a portrait of Goldstein in his living room, but took it down as he entered politics.
According to Mr Yossi Klein Halevi, a researcher at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, the leader of the extreme-right has been “faking a political makeover”.
He is “pretending that he’s now, if not quite moderate, at least a respectable hardliner”, he said. “He is not. It’s a lie… He’s the demagogue who feeds on fear, frustration and anger.” AFP