Itamar Ben-Gvir: The controversial minister
Itamar Ben-Gvir is alarming, and neither Washington, the Jewish diaspora, nor the Israeli opposition, hesitate to let it be known
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's new National Security Minister, leaves no one indifferent. Rarely has an Israeli politician inspired so much passion and concern.
This is essentially the message that President Isaac Herzog wanted to convey to the far-right politician when he summoned him for a private meeting on the eve of the inauguration of the new government. Herzog warned him against any racist or discriminatory rhetoric, and called on him to act for the good of all Israeli citizens, without exception.
The new government's strongman is the leader of the far-right Jewish Power party. Supporting a hard line against terrorism and criminality, Ben-Gvir has repeatedly affirmed his intention to establish the death penalty for terrorists and to withdraw citizenship from Israeli Arabs who commit attacks. He has also called for an end to the status quo that prohibits Jews from praying on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, and to no longer recognize liberal Jewish conversions as qualifying under the law of return.
Born in 1976 in the Jerusalem suburb Mevaseret Tzion and raised in a secular family of Iraqi-Kurdish origin, Ben-Gvir was won over by radical religious militancy during the First Intifada. He first joined a right-wing youth movement affiliated with Moledet, a party that campaigns for the transfer of Arabs out of Israel, before joining the even more radical youth movement of the Kach party, later designated as a terrorist organization and banned by the Israeli government. Founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, this party asserts that the majority of Arabs living in Israel are enemies of the Jews and the state itself, and advocates for the creation of a theocratic Jewish state where non-Jews should not have the right to vote.
One of the most vocal opponents of the Oslo Accords, Ben-Gvir rose to prominence in 1995, a few weeks before the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He engaged in inflammatory rhetoric and protests, always under the banner of the far-right, which earned him dozens of indictments. According to him, he has been charged no less than 53 times. Although most of these charges were dismissed by the courts, he did not escape a conviction for incitement to terrorism in 2007. As a lawyer, he has represented Jewish extremists in court.
Head of the Jewish Power party since 2013, Ben-Gvir has recently sought to moderate his positions with the aim of mainstreaming his party in the light of the last elections. The strategy worked, allowing the list that included Jewish Power and Bezalel Smotrich's Religious Zionism party to obtain 14 seats in the November election, making them essential elements in the new coalition. Thanks to smooth coalition negotiations with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir obtained the new portfolio of national security minister, an expansion of the existing public security portfolio which will include expanded powers over the police.
Ben-Gvir is alarming. And neither Washington, nor the Jewish diaspora, nor the Israeli opposition hesitate to let it be known. The United States even hinted the day after the elections that it could boycott an Israeli government including the far-right lawmaker. Certain figures of the outgoing Israeli government do not hesitate to raise the specter of a new intifada provoked by Ben-Gvir's extremism. Hamas has also taken a stand and threatened a destructive response if the new minister was to tamper with the status quo.
The majority of Israelis – 52 percent, according to a recent poll – do not think the new government will be able to fight terrorism. Another poll revealed that 60 percent of young Israelis fear for the future of democracy with figures like Ben-Gvir in power.
Ben-Gvir is in a delicate position, which will require a certain balancing act. While his foremost concern is to implement the policy he was elected for, he knows that he will also have to reassure the sectors of the country that are opposed to him, as well as Israel's international partners, and prove that he is a minister for all the citizens of Israel.