JERUSALEM - If Mr Benjamin Netanyahu regains the premiership after Israel’s election next month, it may be thanks to an ultranationalist firebrand whose romp into the mainstream has jolted voters otherwise exhausted by years of political deadlock.
Polls predict the joint list co-headed by Mr Itamar Ben-Gvir’s “Jewish Power” party will win as many as 13 of Parliament’s 120 seats, turning the 46-year-old into a potential kingmaker of a future conservative coalition.
That would be a big step up for a man convicted in 2007 of racist incitement and support for a group on both the Israeli and US terror blacklists. It would also attest to the success of a bid to cast himself as a friendlier face of the far-right.
Mr Ben-Gvir is burly and bespectacled, his voice hoarse after decades of contretemps with Arabs and liberals on kerb sides or in the Knesset. But the volume has been dialled down, the slogans become measured. His neckties, once askew, are knotted neatly.
He says he no longer advocates expulsion of all Palestinians – just of those he deems traitors or terrorists. That, he adds, should include Jews disloyal to the country. He also champions the death penalty and, for troops, looser rules on opening fire.
Mr Ben-Gvir used to brand gay pride parades as “abominations”. Now he says he would accept it if one of his six children was gay. He insists, however, that marriages in Israel be kept subordinate to orthodox religion strictures.
“I’m for equal rights. But whoever raises his hand against a soldier, whoever comes out against the State of Israel, whoever wants to turn this into Palestine – it’s not where they belong,” Mr Ben-Gvir told Reuters during a campaign stop at a Jerusalem market, where vendors feted him with free drinks and watermelon.
The Nov 1 ballot will be Israel’s fifth in four years. In a previous round, Mr Netanyahu ruled out Mr Ben-Gvir joining his Cabinet. The messaging has grown more welcoming.
“I would do anything for him to be part of the government,” Mr Miki Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant in the Likud party, said last month, while cautioning that Mr Ben-Gvir would “have to adjust himself to Likud’s positions and to the government’s policy”.
Still, an ascent by Mr Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settler, to a ministerial role would further envenom Israel’s stand-off with the Palestinians and strain its internal Jewish-Arab ties. It could also be a test for Israel’s bedrock US relations.
“Look at Ben-Gvir’s history, his actions, his statements,” the conservative Israel Hayom newspaper quoted an unnamed Biden administration official as saying in a front-page story. “This is not someone we want to see as part of the government.”
The US State Department did not respond to a Reuters query on whether it was concerned that Mr Ben-Gvir might have a role in the next Israeli coalition.
“The Left is feeling the pressure – because we are headed for victory!” Mr Ben-Gvir tweeted about the Israel Hayom report.
The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based advocacy group, said of Mr Ben-Gvir’s prospective coalition role: “We believe such a development would be corrosive to Israel’s founding principles, and its standing among its strongest supporters.”
When asked about his conviction in 2007 on Israel’s Channel 12 television on Sept 22, he said it was a long time ago and said he had moved on in life and had opened a legal practice.
Reuters sent Mr Ben-Gvir questions on his past links to the outlawed Israeli Kach group and criminal record. In a response on Twitter, his spokesman accused Reuters of being “biased” in its line of questioning, although the tweet was later deleted. He then sent links to Mr Ben-Gvir’s previous televised comments.
Mr Amotz Asa-El, a political analyst with the Shalom Hartman Institute, said Mr Ben-Gvir had become more cautious in his comments, calling this “apparently a strategy on his part to appear more mellow than the image that he originally crafted”.
Ben-Gvir did not serve in the military at age 18 – normally a major electoral impediment. He says he was denied the draft for political reasons.
If, as projected by polls, Likud comes ahead in the vote, Mr Netanyahu could potentially use the threat of an alliance with Mr Ben-Gvir to persuade more centrist contenders to join instead.
One of these, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, insists he will not sit with Mr Netanyahu given the ex-prime minister’s corruption trial.
But Mr Gantz proved flexible on this in 2020, coming aboard a year-long Likud-led coalition in the name of fighting Covid-19. REUTERS