Kahane would be proud of Ben-Gvir’s long game

Kahane would be proud of Ben-Gvir’s long game

Unlike Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir's thinking is not limited to his desire to reach a specific position within the government (AFP)
Unlike Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir's thinking is not limited to his desire to reach a specific position within the government (AFP)
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Throughout Israel’s history, fringe religious Zionist parties have had limited success in achieving the kind of electoral victories that would allow them an actual share of the country’s political decision-making powers.

The impressive 17 seats won by extremist religious party Shas in the 1999 elections was a watershed moment in the history of these parties, whose ideological roots go back to Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Zvi Yehuda. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe referred to the Kooks’ ideological influence as a “fusion of dogmatic messianism and violence.”

Throughout the years, these religious parties have struggled on several fronts: their inability to unify their ranks, their failure to appeal to mainstream Israeli society and their inability to strike a balance between messianic political discourse and the kind of language — not necessarily behavior — that Israel’s Western allies expect.

Though much of the financial support and political backing of Israel’s extremists originates in the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe, Washington has been clear regarding its public perception of Israel’s religious extremists. The Kach party, which is banned in the US, could be seen as the modern manifestation of the Kooks and Israel’s early religious Zionist ideologues.

The founder of the group, Meir Kahane, was assassinated in November 1990 moments after the extremist rabbi — who was responsible for inciting much violence against innocent Palestinians throughout the years — had given another hate-filled speech in Manhattan.

In recent years the traditional role played by Israel’s religious Zionists has begun to shift

Dr. Ramzy Baroud

Kahane’s death prompted the start of a campaign of violence meted out by his followers, lead among them being an American doctor, Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 gunned down dozens of Palestinian Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers while protesting the massacre was nearly as many as those killed by Goldstein earlier in the day — a tragic but perfect representation of the relationship between the Israeli state and the violent settlers who operate as part of a larger state agenda.

The Ibrahimi Mosque massacre was a watershed moment in the history of religious Zionism. Instead of being marginalized by the supposedly more liberal Zionists, they gained power and, ultimately, political influence within the Israeli state.

Goldstein himself became a hero, whose grave, in the most extremist illegal settlement in the West Bank, Kiryat Arba, is now a popular shrine, a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Israelis. Particularly telling is that Goldstein’s shrine has been built opposite the Meir Kahane Memorial Park, which is indicative of the clear ideological connections between these individuals, groups and also their funders.

In recent years, however, the traditional role played by Israel’s religious Zionists has begun to shift, leading to the election of Itamar Ben-Gvir to the Israeli Knesset in 2021 and, ultimately, to his role as the country’s national security minister, which he has held since December 2022.

Ben-Gvir is a follower of Kahane. “It seems to me that, ultimately, Rabbi Kahane was about love. Love for Israel without compromise, without any other consideration,” he said in November 2022. But, unlike Kahane, Ben-Gvir was not satisfied with the role of religious Zionists as cheerleaders for the settlement movement, the almost daily raids of Al-Aqsa and occasional attacks on Palestinians. He wanted to be at the center of Israeli political power.

Whether Ben-Gvir achieved his status as a direct result of the successful grassroots work of religious Zionism or because the political circumstances of Israel itself have changed in his favor is an interesting debate. The truth might be somewhere in the middle. The historic failure of Israel’s so-called political left — namely the Labor Party — has, in recent years, propelled a relatively unfamiliar phenomenon: the political center.

Meanwhile, Israel’s traditional right, the Likud party, has grown weaker, partly because it failed to appeal to the growing, more youthful religious Zionism constituency. But also because of a series of splits that occurred as a result of Ariel Sharon’s breaking-up of the party and the founding of Kadima in 2005 — a party that was itself disbanded in 2015.

Ben-Gvir’s thinking is not limited to his desire to reach a specific position within the government

Dr. Ramzy Baroud

To survive, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has redefined his party as its most extremist version of all time. It thus began to attract religious Zionists with the hope of filling the gaps created because of infighting within the Likud. By doing so, Netanyahu has granted religious Zionists the opportunity of a lifetime.

Following the Oct. 7 Al-Aqsa Flood operation and in the early days of the Israeli genocide in Gaza, Ben-Gvir launched his National Guard, a group which he tried, but failed, to compose prior to the war. Thanks to Ben-Gvir, Israel has now become — as per the words of opposition leader Yair Lapid — a country with a “private militia.”

In March, Ben-Gvir announced that 100,000 gun permits had been handed over to his supporters since Oct. 7. It was within this period that the US began imposing sanctions on a few individuals affiliated with Israel’s settler extremist movement — a small slap on the wrist considering the massive damage that has already been done and the great violence that is likely to follow in the coming months and years.

Unlike Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir’s thinking is not limited to his desire to reach a specific position within the government. Israel’s religious extremists are seeking a fundamental and irreversible shift in Israeli politics.

The relatively recent push to change the relationship between the judicial and executive branches of power was as important to those extremists as it was to Netanyahu himself. The latter championed the initiative to shield himself from legal accountability, while Ben-Gvir’s supporters supported it for a different reason: they want to be able to dominate the government and the military with no accountability or oversight.

Israel’s religious Zionists are playing a long game, which is not linked to a particular election, individual or government coalition. They are redefining the state, along with its ideology. And they are winning.

It goes without saying that Ben-Gvir and his threats to topple Netanyahu’s coalition government have been the main driving force behind the genocide in Gaza.

If Kahane were still alive, he would be proud of his followers. The ideology of the once-marginalized and loathed extremist rabbi is now the backbone of Israeli politics.

  • Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and author. He is editor of The Palestine Chronicle and nonresident senior research fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappe, is “Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out.” X: @RamzyBaroud
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