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Israel Elections 2022: Meet the far-right politician who could help bring back Benjamin Netanyahu

Election posters in Israel
This Feb. 25, 2020, photo from the Ramat Gan district of Tel Aviv shows a campaign poster for the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, showing party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir standing behind Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in Israel.

Artur Vidak/NurPhoto/Getty

Tel Aviv – Israelis will vote on Tuesday for the fifth time in four years to determine who should lead their country. The election is to determine who will fill the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, called the Knesset. Candidates are nominated by 13 different political parties. If one party got a simple majority of 61 seats, it could form a new government.

Recent polls show that no party will win 61 seats this week, so the leader of the party with the most votes will have the first chance to partner with other parties to take the 61 seats in the Knesset and form a coalition government. If the party with the most votes cannot form a coalition, the second-placed party gets a chance.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was ousted last year after a decade in power, is asking Israeli voters to give him another shot at the country’s top job despite the corruption trial. Current Prime Minister Yair Lapid, on the other hand, hopes that his brief stint as head of the interim government that took over after Netanyahu’s ouster has proven his ability as a leader.

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But neither Netanyahu’s hardline Likud party nor Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid are likely to win 61 seats on their own. As such, both will seek to form promising coalitions with other smaller political parties to secure the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a government.

If Netanyahu and Lapid cannot agree on sufficient support for the smaller parties, Israel may be forced to hold another election. With large sections of the population looking to leave politics behind in favor of governance after snap elections, some of the smaller parties will seek to act as rulers.

A poll ahead of this week’s election gave Netanyahu a slight lead over Lapid. If the embattled former prime minister does overtake his main opponent in the polls, he may turn to the rising star of Israel’s far-right, current Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, to form a coalition.

Ben-Gvir heads a party called Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). A resident of a Jewish settlement in Hebron and a follower of ultra-nationalist American-born rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben-Gvir was elected to parliament in the last round of voting in 2021. Not long before that, he was a divisive figure, mostly on the fringes of the Israeli far-right.

The Israeli police reacted to the intervention of the Palestinians by the right-wing MP Ben-Gvir
Far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir holds an Israeli flag as Palestinians gather around him to prevent him from holding a press conference at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on June 10, 2021.

Eyad Tawil/Anadolu Agency via Getty

His first moment in the spotlight came in 1995 when he stole a Cadillac emblem from the car of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. Ben-Gvir held up the Cadillac badge to the TV camera and said, “How we got to his car, we’re going to get to him.”

A few weeks later, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish far-right nationalist.

In the years that followed, Ben-Gvir had countless run-ins with the police and a series of lawsuits. He was convicted of inciting racism for his involvement in attacks on Arabs and for supporting a Jewish nationalist terrorist cell. When he was 18 years old, the Israel Defense Forces refused to draft him into the army.

Ben-Gvir went to law school and later sued the Israeli government for wrongful accusations and won. Since then, he has worked as a lawyer defending far-right activists.

As an activist, he became popular among marginalized groups in Israeli society, including young ultra-Orthodox Jews who felt they did not fit in with the existing ultra-Orthodox establishment. Ben-Gvir also became a hero in some poor areas where he appeared and supported movements against foreign migration, especially from Africa. He has also expressed anti-LGBTQ views.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of far-right nationalists
Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, is seen with supporters during a visit to the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on October 28, 2022.

Eyal Varshavski/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

In recent years, Ben-Gvir led the nationalist “March of Flags” on Jerusalem Day, which became a flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2021 the chaos surrounding the procession led to a large-scale conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The politician has been known to appear at any clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in disputed East Jerusalem and even brandished a weapon during such bombings.

In 2021, Ben-Gvir joined forces with two other right-wing parties, the Religious Zionist Party and Noam. In the upcoming elections, Ben-Gvir threatened to withdraw from the alliance, but rejoined to ensure that the parties received enough votes to pass the threshold needed to win Knesset seats. Netanyahu helped orchestrate this partnership, knowing he would need both parties to join any coalition he hoped to form.

The latest polls suggest that Ben Gvir’s party alone could win more than a dozen seats, and if Netanyahu does form the next government, he may even give his far-right ally a cabinet seat.

Ben-Gvir’s rise has sparked fear among Israeli centrists and left-wing Israelis. Some believe he represents the greatest threat Israeli democracy has ever faced.


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