Jewish Power party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's general election, at his party headquarters in Jerusalem on November 2, 2022. Image Credit: REUTERS

JERUSALEM: Israeli far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who for years was seen as too much of a firebrand for mainstream politics, swept up votes in Tuesday’s election and may now play kingmaker in Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning political comeback.

With a preliminary tally giving Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism party third place, the ultranationlist is set for a central role in shaping a new government led by Netanyahu, whose terms in top office spanned a quarter-century and ended some 18 months ago.

It marks a dramatic transformation for Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of racist incitement against Arabs and support for Kach, a group on the Israeli and US terror blacklists.

That background once locked him out of Israeli politics but his success at the ballot box reflects a hawkish swing among the electorate after his own image makeover, prompting Netanyahu to say he was ready to deal with a man he previously spurned.

“I promise those who didn’t vote for me, from parties far away on the spectrum, that we are brothers,” 46-year-old Ben-Gvir said in a victory speech that was punctuated by chants from the audience of his slogan: “Death to Terrorists!” In government, however, Ben-Gvir - who wants to be police minister - would further envenom Israel’s standoff with the Palestinians and strain Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel.

His presence could also test Israel’s bedrock ties with the United States and the American Jewish community, who tend to be more left-leaning.

“Look at Ben Gvir’s history, his actions, his statements. This is not someone we want to see as part of the government,” conservative Israel Hayom newspaper quoted an unnamed official in US President Joe Biden’s administration as saying in an article published on September 29.

The US State Department did not respond to a Reuters query, sent before the election, on whether it was concerned that Ben-Gvir might have a role in the next Israeli coalition.

Raging arguments

Netanyahu has brushed off the prospect of such blowback from Washington, telling Israel’s Channel 14 TV on October 26: “So let them voice their opinion. It has no sway over me.”

Burly and bespectacled, Ben-Gvir has for decades engaged in raging arguments with Arabs and liberals on curbsides or in the Knesset. He has now lowered the volume. The yellow trappings of Israeli supremacist groups was banished from his campaign, replaced by the national colours, blue and white.

He says he no longer advocates expulsion of all Palestinians - just of those he deems traitors or terrorists. That, he adds, should include Jews disloyal to the country. He also champions capital punishment and looser open-fire regulations for troops.

A coloist on the West Bank which Israel captured and occupied in 1967, Ben-Gvir wants the Palestinian Authority, which has governed parts of the territory under interim peace deals, dismantled. That would place West Bank Palestinians back under full Israeli control.

He used to heckle Gay Pride parades as “abominations”. Now he says he would accept it if one of his six children were gay.

He insists, however, that marriages in Israel should be kept subordinate to orthodox religion strictures.

Ben-Gvir did not serve in the military at age 18 - normally a major electoral impediment. He says he was denied the draft for political reasons. His parliamentary list includes a retired army general, and he has made headlines in Israel by brandishing a pistol during confrontations with Palestinians.

The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based advocacy group, said before the election about Ben-Gvir’s prospective coalition role: “We believe such a development would be corrosive to Israel’s founding principles, and its standing among its strongest supporters.”