More than 30 years have passed since Meir Kahane’s party was barred from participating in Israeli elections. Six years later, it was declared a terrorist organization and banned by the Israeli government.
But after next week’s election, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a student and ideological heir to the rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League and supported expelling all Palestinians from their historical land, may very well become a member of Knesset. And he won’t be walking into the parliament as a marginal figure in Israeli politics, but rather with all the glory and support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to Israel’s election laws, parties can sign a “vote-sharing agreement,” under which parties that pass the election threshold can pool their surplus votes — which otherwise would not add up to win an extra seat — in order to gain another spot for another party. Thus, parties that are ideologically aligned can ensure that their supporters’ votes do not go to waste.
Netanyahu expended tremendous energy bringing together the different factions of Israel’s extreme, religious right wing to make sure they pass the electoral threshold. Ben-Gvir is so extreme that even far right MK Naftali Bennett refused to sit with him in the same party; the former has in his home a photo of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians while they were praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
After Ben-Gvir’s list joined forces with MK Bezalel Smotrich, a nationalist and religious fundamentalist, to form the Religious Zionist slate, the prime minister signed a vote-sharing agreement with them. This means that Likud today not only identifies with Ben-Gvir’s Kahanist vision, but that the two parties believe they share the same pool of potential voters.
Netanyahu’s embrace of Ben-Gvir raised controversy in Israel, and not just on the left. Former top members of Likud such as Benny Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and former Likud minister Limor Livnat, harshly criticized Bibi’s coddling of Kahane’s disciple. Livnat went a step further and publicly broke ties with Likud, which had been her political home for decades. Time after time, the party’s old guard reminds us that back when Meir Kahane would speak before the Knesset plenum, even Likud MKs would walk out in protest.
Over the years, the term “Kahanism” has become a term of derision associated with extreme and violent racism. During one of Kahane’s runs for Knesset, his campaign slogan was “Give me the power to take care of them once and for all.” “Them,” of course, meant Palestinians.
Before Ben-Gvir became an attorney and aspiring politician, he was mostly known for his far-right activities. He was convicted, among other things, of supporting a terrorist organization. Over the years, Ben-Gvir has certainly learned how to talk in a way that dissociates him from Kahane’s party, Kach, which is still considered a terrorist organization — yet he refuses to renounce Kahane and continues to call him a “holy man.”
One can easily understand the discontent of Livnat and her ilk, who insist on viewing their erstwhile political home as the stately party of Menachem Begin before it was sullied by Netanyahu and his Kahanist allies. But this discontent is little more than a matter of aesthetics.
Of course it is unnerving that Ben-Gvir — the man who ripped the emblem from assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac, looked straight into the camera, and said, “Just like we got to this emblem, we’ll get to Rabin as well” — is now one of Netanyahu’s partners. But it is difficult to understand why these people fear Ben-Gvir — a violent settler from Hebron — when the Knesset or government can effectively carry out his vision without him.
Will Ben-Gvir try to enshrine the inferior status of Palestinian citizens of Israel? The Jewish Nation-State Law already does that. Will he seek to further weaken the judiciary and prevent it from stopping anti-democratic and racist trends in the Knesset? Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked already had that covered.
Will he promote the dispossession of Palestinians, destroy their communities, and replace them with Jewish towns? Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin hamlet in the Naqab-Negev, was already being demolished for the purpose of building the Jewish town of Hiran — without Ben-Gvir. Will he attack the national identity of Palestinian citizens of Israel? The Nakba Law passed without needing his support.
Or will Ben-Gvir further condition the distribution of public budgets on the acceptance of Jewish supremacy? Miri Regev did not need the Kahanists to push through the culture loyalty law. Will Ben-Gvir restrict the free movement of Palestinian citizens, and re-engineer the land’s demography according to the Zionist need for a Jewish majority? The racist Admissions Committee Law and many other discriminatory land laws do this quite effectively.
There is almost no discriminatory or racist policy toward Palestinian citizens today that the Israeli government does not already promote. Ben-Gvir is just the most vulgar expression of this policy — and if there is one thing Israelis don’t like, it is to see that vulgarity staring back at them in the mirror. The Kahanists may be on their way to the Knesset, but the spirit of Kahanism has been there for years.