|At age 19, Itamar Ben-Gvir was Israel’s most toxic political activist. He had been the leader of the youth wing of the far-right, anti-Arab Kach party when the Israeli government designated it a terrorist organisation in 1994. A year later he was tainted by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He had no part in the murder, by a Jewish extremist furious about Rabin’s attempts to compromise with the Palestinians. But weeks earlier Mr Ben-Gvir had vandalised the prime minister’s car and boasted on television that “we got to his car, we’ll get to him too.”
Now aged 46, Mr Ben-Gvir will soon be made national security minister in the incoming government of Binyamin Netanyahu. He was once considered too dangerous to be conscripted into the army; now he will lead Israel’s police, which previously investigated him for inciting violence. To many, his rehabilitation symbolises the hard-right turn of Israeli politics.
Mr Ben-Gvir’s mission has been to make palatable a movement regarded by nearly all Israelis as beyond the pale. Raised in an affluent suburb near Jerusalem, he moved to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. He opened a law practice that specialised in representing radical Jews accused of anti-Arab terrorism. He joined another party, Jewish Power, on a platform softened just enough to comply with rules prohibiting political parties from inciting racism. After years of leading groups of thugs in the streets of Jerusalem crying “Death to the Arabs!” he began correcting them to shout “Death to the terrorists!” instead.
But the rebranding wasn’t enough: in 2020 the party received only 19,000 votes. Its salvation came from Mr Netanyahu, who in his quest for a right-wing majority pressured Jewish Power to merge its candidate list with those of two other far-right parties. The new “Religious Zionism” list, which Mr Ben-Gvir co-leads, won 14 seats at the election in November, making it a critical part of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition.
Mr Ben-Gvir is trying to project a more moderate image, promising that as security minister “we will make sure law-abiding Arabs are secure as well”. But his election-night message revealed his long-held beliefs: “It’s time for us to return to being the landlords of our country.”