Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Itamar Ben-Gvir has become, in a certain circle, anyway, the “It-Boy” of Israel’s terrible political moment. But why?

This is a segment from The “Negotiating With Terrorists” Edition.


Now it is time for our second discussion, which we are calling Bar Raving Time, for reasons that I am sure are already completely obvious to you, but still I will tell you, and here’s why.

You ever had that experience of sitting in a bar and the guy right next to you starts talking and the talk turns into a rant and the rant is maybe a little off color, maybe a little racist, and all you want to do is get away from that guy who’s sitting next to you in the bar and never see him again?

A lot of us, I think, have for a time now had that experience with Israel’s youthfully 47-year-old Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose name anagrams, and this is the point, and it could hardly be a coincidence, to Bar Raving Time.

And a lot of us have had that feeling, all the more so over the past two weeks.

Last week, Itamar Ben-Gvir was the featured speaker at something long-windedly called the, quote, “Conference for the Victory of Israel, “Settlement Brings Security, “Returning to the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria,” end quote, a gathering in the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center in Jerusalem, calling for rebuilding Jewish towns in Gaza of the sort that were abandoned by Ariel Sharon’s government back in 2005.

As Haaretz describes it, Ben-Gvir, quote, unquote, “Got a rock star reception at the conference “and there were cheers when he told the crowd, quote, “If we don’t want another October 7th, “we must return home and control the territory, “as well as propose a moral Torah and halachic logic, “encouraging immigration by choice for Gazans “and the death penalty for terrorists,” end quote.

The gathering, which had some of the ecstatic vibe of the wedding of a great rabbi’s eldest daughter to a scholar of renown, broke down repeatedly into chanting, singing, and dancing, in which Itamar Ben-Gvir took part.

This week, Itamar Ben-Gvir was in the news again when he shared with the Wall Street Journal his criticisms of the leaders of both Israel and the United States.

Of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir said that he, quote, “Is at a crossroads.

“He has to choose in what direction he would go,” end quote, implying that the prime minister has lately shown signs of being soft on Hamas and being willing to stop Israel’s full-on assault on Gaza in exchange for the return of hostages.

Of Joe Biden, he said that his administration was getting in the way of Israel’s war effort in a way that Donald Trump will not do if he is elected president in November.

Ben-Gvir told the Journal, quote, “Instead of giving us full backing, “Biden is busy giving humanitarian aid and fuel to Gaza, “which goes to Hamas.

“If Trump was in power, “the U.S. conduct would be completely different,” end quote.

However, its political analyst Yossi Werther wrote that in attacking the American president, Ben-Gvir was trying to make it harder for Netanyahu to reach an accommodation with Biden and in this way to force Netanyahu still further to the right.

Lots of people criticized Ben-Gvir for saying what he said to an American paper.

Benny Gantz tweeted that Ben-Gvir damaged the war effort, the country’s security, and its diplomatic relations with the West.

Opposition head Yair Lapid said that what Ben-Gvir said was, quote, unquote, “A direct attack on Israel’s international standing.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu did not criticize Ben-Gvir, not by name anyway, but Netanyahu did say at his most recent cabinet meeting that he is not in need of help with diplomacy.

The reason the prime minister did not say something stronger than that is that as the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, Yochanan Plesner said, quote, “Ben-Gvir has huge leverage over Netanyahu.

“The last thing Netanyahu needs is an early election “and Ben-Gvir knows that,” end quote.

Before Gantz and his National Unity Party joined the ruling coalition, Netanyahu controlled 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, of which six come from Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Strength Party.

Gantz plans to stay in the government only until the war is over at the very latest.

To stay in power after that, Netanyahu needs Ben-Gvir and Ben-Gvir knows it.

Maybe the most shocking thing about the Wall Street Journal article is a little box that appears near the bottom that reads, quote, “Share your thoughts.

“If Ben-Gvir becomes prime minister, “what would that mean for Israel?

“Join the conversation below.”

Recent “If the elections were held today” polls give Ben-Gvir 6.5% of the vote or eight seats, which is a modest increase over what he won in the last election, but very far from the number that might land him in the prime minister’s office.

Still, what should we make of the man who seems to be having a moment at the moment?

What accounts for his recent bluster?

What, if anything, does his prominence in the news, especially international news, tell us about Israeli politics at this moment and about how our politics might develop over the next weeks and months?

Miriam, what should we make of Ben-Gvir and Ben-Gvirism now in February 2024? – Well, I’d like to share my thoughts about what would happen if Ben-Gvir goes back up to the Temple Mount with his entourage during Ramadan next month, a much more likely scenario than Ben-Gvir becoming prime minister.

I don’t know what they were thinking over there at the Wall Street Journal.

That was a ridiculous, I think a ridiculous question.

Not that it’s absolutely inconceivable, it’s certainly nothing that could happen in the next years, but he has shown, this guy who was just this really marginal, rejected, kind of petty, criminal, political, obnoxious guy, has shown that he is not those things.

He is someone who thinks he was playing the long game.

He’s pretty smart, he’s strategic, and I think he’s also, you know, shouldn’t be looked at as just the individual, but everything he represents about a current in Israeli history and Israeli life, which is that his rise to power is the apotheosis of a process in which among parts of the settlement movement the concept of democracy was completely thrown overboard in favor of a version of Jewish, a chauvinistic version of Jewish control in which occupation wasn’t considered a necessary evil, but an actual value, occupation of certainly of land and also of people and the control of those people.

And this is, you know, it’s been brewing for many years, and this is where we’ve come.

So he’s not just that guy in the bar.

I wish he was just that guy, you know, in the bar.

He’s a guy in the government. – A minister in the government who controls handing out a lot of guns.

I think that this moment for Ben-Gvir is a product of the fact that there is this really profound rift or disagreement in Israeli society that because it’s this moment of like quasi-unity is hard to talk about full-throatedly, but I think that it has to do with what we were talking about in our prior discussion.

There is a big part of the country that really thinks that making any kind of deal with Hamas to get back the hostages is just wrong, that it’s morally wrong, that it’s practically wrong, that it will lead to the deaths of more Jews, that it will lead to us being seen as weak, which is a crime against Jewish history, but also against Israeli politics now and in the future and Israeli security now and in the future.

And I think that this is a big group of people, a minority still, I think that probably 60% of the country feels otherwise and 40% of the country feels this way, but it’s a really hard position to voice without seeming like a complete jerk and seeming unconcerned about the hostages.

So even Netanyahu, who maybe made his strongest statement along these lines just last night, even he is always kind of careful to say, of course, the hostages are of equal importance and we’re balancing these two things.

And Benver, who has never been frightened of seeming like a jerk, who I think one of his main sources of his political power is his kind of gleeful willingness to say things that other people won’t say for reasons of propriety or whatever.

He’s out there saying, no, we just, we, you know, it would be a terrible tragedy if all these hostages die, but all these hostages dying is better than stopping the war with Hamas.

And he’s out there saying, Joe Biden sounds old.

And he’s out there saying, Joe Biden is bad for the Jews, saying all these things that no real politician could possibly say, especially at this moment, but he can say, and I think that he feels that it is a authentic and that it makes him seem more authentic, but, and it really is authentic.

It really is what he believes.

And he thinks that this is going to bring him more popularity, which he does, which it does.

And so for him, it’s obvious. – Is he more popular based on, if he, how many seats does he have now? – He has six and he’d go up to eight.

So that’s more popular.

That’s adding a third of his support.

It comes at the expense of the other religious Zionists.

It’s not as though he’s convincing leftists or centrists to come over to him.

That’s not true, but he’s becoming a little bit more of the voice of the far right, which is not a small amount of people and it’s enough people while Netanyahu is premier to be kingmakers of a government.

So he’s just getting stronger and stronger.

And it’s a little bit terrifying to watch.

The only thing that I would, the last thing that I’d add, the only thing that I would add is that the position of feeling like, no, it’s not the right thing to give up whatever we need to give up in order to get back the hostages to utterly prioritize the safety of the 81, hopefully living hostages right now.

That position, which is not at all the position that I hold.

And as each day passes, I become more and more firmly on the side of the people who say, do whatever you have to do to get the hostages back.

That position, that opposite position to me seems completely reasonable.

It seems like a completely reasonable position.

Benveer is horrible about many things.

This let’s resettle Gaza is horrible at every single level.

And even if I didn’t care about the Palestinians. – He’s a proponent of transfer. – He’s careful to say, transfer by choice, voluntary transfer, yes, absolutely.

And even if I didn’t care what the world thought, and even if I didn’t care what Palestinians think, and I care about both of those things, and especially about the safety of Palestinians and their honor and what they think.

But even if I didn’t care, I would think it was a terrible, terrible, terrible idea to resettle for Jews to resettle Gaza.

So I’m not there with him, but about this particular hostage thing, which I think is really his engine forward at this moment, I think it’s a completely reasonable position that I can’t take.

I don’t have the stomach to take, or I don’t think is the right position to take, but it’s a completely reasonable position.

And to be able to move forward by rallying people around the position that ultimately is completely reasonable, that’s what a smart politician does. – Yeah, I mean, although there are other, there are enough people who are a little closer to the center who are making that case that he doesn’t own that.

He doesn’t entirely own that, but he says it most bluntly.

And it definitely isn’t in his mind or in the minds of his close followers, a jerky thing to say.

It’s a Jewish pride and powerful thing to say.

It’s modern day Kahanism very much in that, that is, he’s a great admirer of Kahana, despite any framing that he’s given.

He’s famously had Barak Goldstein, who committed mass murder, a portrait of him on his wall.

So I just wouldn’t, just have to be careful.

Like he’s actually got a whole philosophy, but I think you’re right about that kind of rhyming with stuff that are reasonable positions.

By the way, his insistence on handing guns out throughout the population is another one of those things.

‘Cause even- – It’s pretty popular, pretty generally popular. – It’s pretty generally popular among people whose personal security was threatened, not yesterday, not October 7th, but in riots that broke out throughout the country a few years back.

So between that and a general sense of insecurity and then this horrific thing where specifically people did not have the guns they needed when they should have and they had the training.

So this guy coming out as the candy man, the gunman, passing them all out, it again overlaps with a reasonable concern about this.

He’s very smart.

I think he in particular also, he’s someone that really knows media and uses it.

He’s so good at it.

He shows up everywhere.

And I have to say that one of the grace notes following the deadly silence in the days after October 7th from the government was, I was physically aware of the absence of Ben-Gvir for some days from the public sphere.

And it was a relief at that time of grievous fear and mourning to not have him there.

He came back and he’s like a virus, but he came back. – Though whatever government follows this government, whenever it follows this government, Ben-Gvir will not be a part of it.

He may be back in some distant future that I cannot yet imagine, but he is not going to be part of our political future.

You will have that, you won’t have quiet because he will be loud from the opposition and he’ll have his support and he’ll have his eight seats in the Knesset, but he will not be a minister.

He will not be part of the government. – It’s so important to say how stunning it is that he is just even in the Knesset.

This is just was so unthinkable a short time ago. – Yes, and through a complicated mechanization, he’s the product of Benjamin Netanyahu.

He is the creation of Benjamin Netanyahu, but we have talked about that before.

We will talk about it again in the future.

So just before ending this segment, I just want to say you used the word apotheosis. – You noticed.

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