TEL AVIV, Israel — Itamar Ben Gvir hails from a fringe of Israeli politics so extreme it was outlawed. A lawyer known for defending Jewish settlers accused of violence against Arabs, he has roots in the overtly racist Kach party, founded by radical American Rabbi Meir Kahane and banned by Israel decades ago.
But now, Ben Gvir and thousands of new-generation Kahanists are on the verge of a political comeback, thanks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s need for parliamentary seats in Tuesday’s national election.
Backed by Netanyahu, Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party is poised to gain its first spot in Israel’s Knesset and possibly even a cabinet position in the next government, providing the ultranationalist group with a foothold in its bid for legitimacy.
That prospect has electrified thousands of modern-day Kahanists, who see Ben Gvir as the kind of polished leader who can make their ideology palatable to an increasingly right-wing electorate. He advocates expelling Arabs deemed “disloyal” from Israel and the occupied territories and calls for Israel to annex the entire West Bank, which is home to some 3 million Palestinians.
“Itamar is this new generation, a generation that knows that the way to participate in public discourse is to talk positively — not about hating Arabs, but about loving the Jewish nation, though the core ideology is the same,” said Nati Smadar of the far-right advocacy group Lahava, whose members have been convicted of arson attacks on mixed Arab-Jewish schools and have protested at weddings between Jews and Arabs.
Many mainstream Israelis have reacted with horror at the prospect of a Kahanist comeback. One political commentator labeled Ben Gvir’s views as “reptilian,” another as “repugnant.”
Major Jewish groups in the United States have condemned previous attempts by Ben Gvir to enter parliament. “The views of [the Jewish Power party] are reprehensible,” the American Jewish Committee said in a statement in 2019. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, tweeted at the time that it “has a long-standing policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”
“It’s a nightmare,” said Stav Shaffir, a former Labor Party lawmaker who is being sued by Ben Gvir for allegedly comparing his views to Nazism. “For years, it has been the consensus on the left and the right that he shouldn’t be in parliament. The only way he can get a seat is if Netanyahu is working for him.”
The alliance between Netanyahu’s dominant Likud party and one of the country’s most fanatical groups stems from Israel’s ongoing political stalemate. Over three elections in the past two years, no party has won a decisive victory, thwarting efforts to assemble a governing coalition in the Knesset. In vote after vote, the coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that has kept Netanyahu in power for 14 years has fallen short of extending his run.
Fractious anti-Netanyahu forces — including leftist, centrist and Arab parties — managed together to win more seats each time than the prime minister’s coalition but failed to agree on a united front that would unseat him. An emergency unity government that formed last year to face the coronavirus pandemic lasted only seven months before collapsing amid infighting.
For this fourth attempt, Netanyahu has been looking for new votes wherever he can, including a campaign to attract voters in Israel’s Arab communities.
And almost as a soon as new elections were called, he began brokering a deal between Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power and the Religious Zionist party headed by Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand conservative and self-declared “proud homophobe.” By combining forces, they have a better chance of reaching the minimum number of votes required to enter the Knesset, and recent polls show their ticket could garner as many as four seats, a potentially critical boost for Netanyahu in his bid for a majority.
“Our bond is good news for anyone who wants an ideological political home that will not compromise on its values,” Ben Gvir told reporters. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)
According to local media reports, Netanyahu promised the combined parties control of at least one ministry in his next government, although he has recently downplayed the possibility that Ben Gvir would receive a top position.
Ben Gvir, 44, lives in the militant West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron and has been the lawyer in some of Israel’s most notorious Jewish terrorism cases. His clients, for instance, have included two teenagers accused of an arson attack that killed three members of a West Bank Palestinian family.
He originally came to prominence in 1995, soon after Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin signed a peace deal with the Palestinians. Ben Gvir appeared in a television interview holding a car ornament that he said he had stolen from Rabin’s Cadillac. “We got the car. We’ll get to Rabin too,” he said. Weeks later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist. Ben Gvir has no known connection to the killing, though he campaigned for the assassin’s release from prison.
Ben Gvir is an acolyte of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born rabbi who founded the vigilante Jewish Defense League, which the FBI later named as a right-wing terrorist group. In the 1970s, after Kahane was convicted of participating in a bombmaking plot and given a suspended sentence, he immigrated to Israel and founded the Kach party, which promoted stripping most Arabs of their voting rights and making sexual relations between Jews and Arabs illegal. He was banned from the Knesset in 1988 after one term on grounds of inciting racism. He was assassinated in New York two years later by an Egyptian militant.
After a fellow Kach politician, American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, Israel declared the party a terrorist organization. After that, the party’s leaders mostly came to be regarded as pariahs. But Kahanism took on a new life as an alt-underground youth movement.
“I think Rabbi Kahane was a holy man, a righteous man, who fought for the Jewish people and was murdered for the sanctification of God’s name … I take from Rabbi Kahane many, many good things,” Ben Gvir said in an interview last month with the right-wing media site Srugim.
“But after all that, no, I’m not Rabbi Kahane word for word,” he said, adding for example that he would not propose legislation creating segregated beaches for Jews and Arabs.
Now, with Ben Gvir — who once kept a portrait of Baruch Goldstein on his living room wall — on the threshold of entering the Knesset, views that were once considered “delusional” in mainstream politics have gained legitimacy with the Israeli public, said Tom Nisani, a 32-year-old field coordinator with the far-right activist group Im Tirzu.
Today’s Kahanists profess to reject violence. But many defend attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories as a warranted response to their hostility.
“I’m not about to start a war for the land,” said Michael Miller, a 30-year-old American-born Jewish Power voter. “But if, God forbid, our neighbors decide to be hostile against us, then yes, dare I say it would be a mitzvah to conquer the land back. To take back what is rightfully ours.”