The ultra right-wing MP inflaming Israeli politics

·4-min read

As Israelis clashed with Palestinians in recent weeks, one hardline nationalist lawmaker allied with embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was repeatedly stoking the flames: Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the one-man "Jewish Power" party.

The 45-year-old lawyer and father of six, who lives in a settlement near Hebron in the Israel-occupied West Bank, took his seat in the Knesset in April as part of a "Religious Zionism" alliance orchestrated by Netanyahu.

Ben-Gvir has since been ubiquitous at Israel's most explosive sites.

He opened a "parliamentary office" in the occupied east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah - where Jewish Israelis are vying to expel Palestinian residents from their homes, built on land that belonged to Jews prior to 1948.

Those tensions, and related clashes in the city's al-Aqsa mosque compound, spiralled into the 11-day military escalation last month between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas that rules Gaza.

Jerusalem tensions and the Gaza conflict also sparked mob violence between Israeli Jews and Arabs in Israeli cities, and Ben-Gvir visited the sites of street battles to rally far-right vigilantes.

Supporters of Ben-Gvir encouraged avenging "Jewish blood" in cities including Bat Yam, where a Jewish mob was later filmed beating an Arab driver and smashing Arab-owned stores.

In other places, Arabs attacked synagogues and Jewish-owned cars and homes.

Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai accused Ben-Gvir of starting "a Jewish intifada", or uprising, Israeli media reported.

Ben-Gvir was unapologetic and told AFP that police should crack down harder.

"If they did what's necessary, and fired -- live fire, not rubber bullets -- at a person throwing a firebomb, we'd already be in a better place," he argued.

- 'Dog whistle for violence' -

Israeli politics has shifted rightward under Netanyahu, known as Bibi, and an end to Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip appears remote to most observers.

Now that a cross-party alliance seeks to oust the veteran premier after 12 straight years in power, Ben-Gvir remains loyal to his benefactor.

"I want Bibi to be the prime minister and I want to be in that government," he told AFP. "I want to pull the government to the right."

Ben-Gvir's party calls for "removing Israel's enemies from our land" and for annexing the West Bank, home to some 2.8 million Palestinians.

Though he is the sole legislator of his party, Ben-Gvir commands outsized attention.

He had the third-highest number of media appearances of all Israeli politicians in March and April, according to the Ifat media monitor.

He is also skilled at connecting with supporters online, said internet activist Achiya Schatz, who monitored some 70 WhatsApp and Telegram groups.

"When it comes to creating networks of avoiding police, avoiding the law, dog whistling for violence -- he is the best," Schatz said.

"In the extremist groups, he's the messiah."

Ben-Gvir recently threatened to sue Facebook for blocking WhatsApp accounts of his supporters, including one activist whose group hosted calls for Jewish vigilantes to bring weapons to the city of Lod, where Arab and Jewish citizens had clashed.

"Come with your faces covered. We're not going to tangle with the police. Only with Arabs," wrote one member.

Facebook did not reply to AFP questions.

Ben-Gvir, who has provided legal defence to Israeli Jews accused of deadly crimes against Palestinians, justified the inflammatory message.

"The law in Israel says a person who is attacked is allowed to defend himself," he said.

- Achieving notoriety -

As a young man, Ben-Gvir achieved notoriety for stealing the ornament from former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's Cadillac -- weeks before Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist at a rally as he sought to build a permanent peace with Palestinians.

"Like we reached this symbol, we can reach him too," Ben-Gvir said at the time.

He drew inspiration from late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was banned in Israel after another member, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.

Ben-Gvir keeps Kahane's books in his office, though the lawmaker told AFP he disagrees with some of the rabbi's points, like the notion "that we have to expel all the Arabs".

In Israel's recent political turmoil, Netanyahu is now under heavy pressure from an alliance led by the centrist Yair Lapid, who has until midnight Wednesday to form a new government.

Lapid has offered to rotate the prime minister post with pro-settlement hardliner Naftali Bennett going first.

"Bennett sold out his voters and his values and is leading Israel to a disaster," Ben-Gvir wrote on Telegram.

Extremism expert Eran Tzidkiyahu says a new government headed by Bennett could marginalise Ben-Gvir.

Bennett "can look Ben-Gvir in the eye and say, 'I don't need your approval,'" Tzidkiyahu said.

Ben-Gvir said his voters elected him for a mission.

"I'm in the Knesset not by accident," he told AFP. "The Israeli public wants to stop being a sucker to our enemies."

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