MIDDLE ISRAEL: Activist, rabble-rouser and lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir, is the politician who outsmarted Benjamin Netanyahu himself.
Head of the Otzma Yehudit Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. / (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Napoleon would have thus joined the pundits who crowned Itamar Ben-Gvir as our latest election’s winner. Chaos, the veteran provocateur’s claim to fame, is where the Jewish state has just arrived, and it has the 46-year-old zealot’s name written all over it.
As an activist, Ben-Gvir played tag with cops; as a rabble-rouser he provoked street fights; and as a lawyer, he dashed to any Jewish terrorist’s defense, all of which proved useful when he morphed into the politician who outsmarted Benjamin Netanyahu himself.
Promising a restoration of “personal security,” Ben-Gvir decried last year’s Israeli Arab violence in Arab-Jewish towns like Acre, Ramle and Lod, as well as Bedouin Israelis’ burglaries, robberies and protection rackets in the South. Both scourges brewed under Netanyahu’s watch, and Ben-Gvir knew he was attacking the man who will soon be his boss.
The problem, from Ben-Gvir’s viewpoint, is that he will now have to assume an executive office and actually get things done. Before that, he will have to negotiate his path to the booty he craves, a task that will require delicate bargaining opposite the man who now sees in him as a personal rival.
Netanyahu’s aim will be to bury Ben-Gvir in a ministry where he will be marginalized – tourism, agriculture or maybe religious affairs. Netanyahu will be assisted in this by others who feel threatened by Ben-Gvir, from the latter’s ticket-mate Bezalel Smotrich to Shas leader Arye Deri. Somewhere between his appointment and its aftermath, the limits of Ben-Gvir’s success will become apparent, as will his failure to control the chaos from which he has emerged.
Napoleon, for his part, after understanding who more than anyone else benefits from that same chaos, would have crowned Netanyahu as this election’s winner. He would be wrong.
Ben-Gvir is the winner. Who are Israel’s losers?
NETANYAHU HAS just avoided his career’s unceremonious end. At 73, another inconclusive result would have resulted in Netanyahu’s removal by his own party. His victory seems ever sweeter when one considers this contest’s many losers.
No, Yair Lapid is not among the losers, considering that his electorate grew by 40%. The big loser is Benny Gantz, whose two moves – teaming up with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and recruiting Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Eizenkot – delivered no results, as the configuration’s combined 14 seats in the outgoing Knesset failed to grow, and in fact shrank.
Eizenkot is a loser in his own right, having had sufficient time to formulate ideas and plans that would reflect a vision concerning the country’s problems and direction. Alas, like so many generals before him, he failed to discuss social, economic, constitutional, structural and cultural issues, sticking instead to defense and foreign affairs, thus failing to understand what troubles voters and how elections are won.
Losers were also the parties that inverted this attitude, most notably former accountant general Yaron Zelekha’s New Economic Party, and MK Abir Kara’s Economic Freedom Party, both of whom failed to enter the Knesset. The two’s alarmist suggestions that the Israeli economy is in deep crisis are factually unfounded, and now also proved electoral non-starters.
Netanyahu initially also tried to play this card, but unlike this pair he quickly understood people realized the economy was fine, certainly when compared to the rest of the world, and thus abandoned this theme, displaying the kind of agility a politician out to control chaos must possess.
This list of losers is besides this election’s biggest loser: Ayelet Shaked.
At this writing, several parties are teetering on the brink of the electoral threshold, but Shaked is not even near it. The charismatic electrical engineer who for several years was seen as a potential prime minister now collapsed because her quest – to present a nicer right-wing party – lacked an explanation of what she found wrong with Likud and because she did not present any original ideas.
Having served as Netanyahu’s bureau chief before falling from grace and abandoning him, Shaked’s downfall is to many of Netanyahu’s groupies the sweetest proof that he is back on the saddle, in full control of his battlefield’s chaos, and thus this election’s big winner. He isn’t.
NETANYAHU’S FIRST act as the reinstalled prime minister will seem to most people esoteric and harmless, as he will heed ultra-Orthodoxy’s demand to cancel the outgoing government’s religious reforms. Making new immigrants’ conversion harder and restoring thousands of party hacks to state-paid positions as kashrut supervisors in restaurants are the kind of currency he pays happily and generously.
In fact, this will be but a subplot in a tragedy dominated by three reactionary coalition partners, who collectively defy the Israeli majority’s liberalism, patriotism and feminism.
There will be very few women in the next coalition, and some of its members will be self-declared homophobes. Three of its four parties’ leaders will be men who made a mockery of their own military service through assorted draft-dodging arrangements. This background will not prevent their demanding, and obtaining, key ministries.
United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf already said he wants to be finance minister, a statement no ultra-Orthodox politician ever previously made. His chances of getting this position are low, but someone else with an equally sectarian agenda – possibly Arye Deri – may well get to clutch the national chest.
Meanwhile, if Ben-Gvir lands the Public Security Ministry, he can be counted on to bring into this sensitive agency’s corridors the chaos that is its enemy and his expertise.
This is all besides what will happen in the Justice Ministry, where the assault on the judiciary that the Right has been demanding for years will now be launched across a broad front, in broad daylight.
And that is when this election’s real winner – chaos – will emerge all by itself atop the political podium: unopposed, unabashed and uncontrolled.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.