As Arab crime families battle it out, Itamar Ben Gvir's political fate hangs in the balance
Illustration: Sivan Schwam
AT a low point in his career after being named a co-conspirator in Trump’s election interference indictment, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani would no doubt be happy to know that his name is being mentioned favorably during emergency deliberations between the police and the Shin Bet in Israel.
The rising crime wave in the Arab community, which has even seen mayoral candidates being gunned down, has triggered suggestions to bring back the Giuliani template for rooting out organized crime.
Police intelligence has managed to smash organized crime in the Jewish sector but has struggled to contain the same phenomenon in the Arab sector. With the Jewish crime rings, you can recruit state’s witnesses — who trust police to protect them. In the Arab sector, anyone who opens his mouth knows that he and his family won’t live to see the end of the week.
If Giuliani is invited to testify in Israel any time soon, it will be in the context of his successful record of crushing organized crime, which once held New York in a thrall that is not too different from the current state of affairs in the Arab sector.
Minutes before the entrance of Shabbos, at the time when Chazal say that three mouths were created — those of the earth, the well, and the donkey — another wondrous event occurred in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement about National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — not in condemnation, but in support.
In his sixth and most disappointing government, Netanyahu has found himself running from fire to fire, hose in hand, having to explain or denounce or distance himself from his ministers’ comments. And this isn’t true merely of his government’s radical wing, but even of centrist Likud ministers such as Eli Cohen, whose publicity hunting led to Libyan foreign minister Najla al-Mangoush having to flee her country after Cohen made their meeting public.
Netanyahu is at his wit’s end. If there was anyone in his government he was counting on to show some collective responsibility, it was centrist Likud members in high-profile positions — but this right-wing government has two left feet.
That said, Netanyahu’s statement last Erev Shabbos was unusual. It wasn’t another half-hearted condemnation or apology such as we’ve gotten used to since the start of the term, but an official statement of support from the prime minister’s office, in English, meant for international consumption.
Ben Gvir’s presence in the coalition has been Netanyahu’s headache from day one. President Joe Biden, it will be remembered, cited extremist ministers like Ben Gvir as the reason Netanyahu had been disinvited from the White House, and Ben Gvir’s name figures negatively in almost every interview Netanyahu grants to the foreign press.
But this time it seemed that Ben Gvir, who’s always walked on the edge, had finally crossed the line. In an interview to Channel 12, he was quoted as saying that Jewish settlers’ freedom of movement came before that of Arab residents of Judea and Samaria. The quote, translated and amplified around the world, caused an even more serious furor in the US, where it recalled race-based restrictions on movement in the country’s past.
Netanyahu was furious, and considered issuing an unprecedentedly harsh condemnation of the national security minister. But when he actually listened to Ben Gvir’s remarks, he realized for the umpteenth time that the greatest enemy of the right-wing government is first and foremost the partisan Israeli press.
It’s hard to say that cabinet ministers are entirely innocent of contributing to the government’s poor image, but in this case, Ben Gvir had measured his words carefully and had said something totally different from what was reported. Sitting in the TV studio, he justified the restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement with the words: “Our right to life takes precedence over Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement,” which was distorted by the press into a general statement about Jewish rights coming before Palestinian rights.
When even the White House condemned the words Ben Gvir hadn’t said, Netanyahu had to intervene — and not out of love for Itamar.
This anecdote illustrates best of all the situation on the ground for the current government. As in the Miranda warning, everything any minister says or does is used against him. Any prior considerations the domestic media have held, such as not slandering Israel on the world stage, have evaporated under the total war against the right-wing government. With the press fully devoted to bringing it down, every news item is propaganda.
Back to Israel’s Arab sector, where we began. Like Menachem Begin, who wished both sides the “greatest success” in the Iran-Iraq war, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was perceived before the start of his term as rooting for both sides in the Arab crime war. But it now appears that he has lost the most from the wave of murders in that sector.
Due to their size and power, the Arab crime militias have long transcended the definition of “organized crime,” and the fact that most of the victims are gang “soldiers” killed in turf wars hasn’t made the headlines any more forgiving.
Based on the intelligence reports presented at the government crime-fighting committee, the Arab gangs are less like the Mafia and more like Russia’s Wagner Group, only without a Putin to keep them in check. The police speak of militias of thousands of foot soldiers, armed with hundreds of thousands of firearms, millions of rounds, grenade launchers, roadside charges, night vision equipment, with billions of shekels in the bank. The judgment-day scenario discussed by the cabinet was the possibility of an armed insurrection up and down the country, with the brunt of their fire being directed at Israeli citizens.
Ben Gvir is taking the blame for things having reached this low point, largely due to all his talk before the elections about restoring sovereignty, but the real culprit is the long-term malfeasance of Israeli police. For years, the government closed its eyes. Police budgets were cut, police officer’s salaries stagnated, thousands of officers resigned, and laws went unenforced. The police solved the fighting in the Arab sector with negotiated truces, serving in the role of intermediaries between the various gangs and clans. That’s how extraterritorial entities sprang up in the Arab sector, with zero deterrence or sovereignty exercised by the State of Israel.
In an ironic twist that only Israeli politics could produce, the future of the Jewish nationalist national security minister will be decided largely on the basis of his success in eradicating crime in the Arab sector.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 977)
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