Itamar Ben Gvir is one of the most radical political figures in Israel. His hatred of Palestinians, along with his incendiary rhetoric justifying Jewish terror, may just get him a seat in the next Israeli cabinet, if the far-right coalition wins the November election. Bibi Netanyahu labored mightily to convince Ben Gvir and his fellow terrorist wannabe, Bezalel Smotrich, to join their parties into a single list. Separately, each one would likely have failed to pass the electoral threshhold. Together, they will add seats to the potential future prime minister’s majority. With the center right grouping neck-and-neck with Likud, every seat counts to achieve a 61 vote majority.
Ben Gvir’s extremism is even too much for the US to tolerate. As a rule of thumb, US administrations never interfere in Israeli elections (though Netatnyahu regularly interferes in ours, even making a TV ad for Mitt Romney). But Ben Gvir is a red line.
As I wrote in my last post, Sen. Bob Menendez, one of the Israel Lobby’s most loyal foot soldiers, scolded Netanyahu and warned him of negative consequences if he brings Ben Gvir into his government. (For some reason, the Biden administration has given Bezalel Smotrich, equally repulsive, a pass.) The State Department too has warned that adding Ben Gvir to a ruling coalition will endanger US-Israel relations.
An Israeli just sent me a link to a 2011 TV interview Ben Gvir gave to Channel 2. In it, he shows off pictures of his heroes hanging on the living room walls. By the way, when Netanyahu sat in Ben Gvir’s living room when they negoatiated the merger, he sat under a picture of Baruch Goldstein featured in the video above. Ben Gvir is cleary proud of it and points it out with rapt devotion.
I’ve translated his interchange with an interviewer viewing the pictures on his living room wall:
[Camera features picture of the Holy Temple}
Interviewer: The Holy Temple, eh?
Ben Gvir: Yes, the Holy Temple. [pointing at the picture] This is the dream. This is the dream that will be realized with God’s help.
I: The problem is that there’s something already there [Al Aqsa] that there’s already something else [there], you know, Itamar.
BG: At the moment, with the emphasis on “at the moment.”
I: A miracle will happen and this [Al Aqsa] will disappear?
BG: No, no, no. Miracles don’t happen quickly. We must work toward this.
[Showing a portrait of Meir Kahane] This is Rabbi Kahane, my teacher and rebbe [spirtual guide]
I: On the wall is another picture: Baruch Goldstein, the man who shot to death 29 Muslims at prayer in the Cave of Machpelah massacre. “But the tower atop the mosque is destroyed.”
BG: There is a statement in this picture. A statement that’s very clear.
I: When your son comes to you and asks you: who is this daddy? Who is that man in the picture?
BG: I’ll say that he is a sant. I’ll say that he is a hero. I’ll tell him he was a doctor [actually, a dentist] who saved the lives of Jews during his life.
I: But I ask you, what is the difference between what he [Goldstein] did and a Palestinian terrorist who comes and bombs a synagogue?
BG: Heaven and earth! How can you compare them at all?
But as I wrote, there is a tendency for foreign states to focus on a particular individual, as if he is the problem, rather than the entire system he represents. This allows them to avoid the real systemic problem. Ben Gvir is the symptom, not the cause. What’s rotten is the Israeli state he represents. And this, no American president would ever touch with a ten-foot pole.
But Menendez’ shot across the bow is a seismic shift in relations between Israel and the US. The time will come when Democrats will not be averse to cutting off aid and even imposing sanctions on Israel for its mass violence and illegal occupation of Palestine. It won’t happen quickly. But these are the birth pangs, not of a new Middle East as Condi Rice said during an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but of a more skeptical, provocative relationship.