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Is There a Reason to Fear Ben Gvir?

The US pressure campaign about Ben Gvir evokes historical echoes 


oth Israel and the United States will have to learn to live with Itamar Ben Gvir, who stands poised to assume control of the new Ministry of National Security once the Netanyahu government is sworn in.

The US pressure campaign against Netanyahu to keep Ben Gvir out of the cabinet failed. It came from all corners — Democratic senators, Biden administration officials, and Conservative and Reform Jewish groups.

It was an exercise in futility to begin with. Netanyahu could not avoid giving cabinet posts to Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich — the leaders of the second-largest party in his ruling coalition. Shas and UTJ received their fair share, too, for sticking with Netanyahu through thick and thin.

The level and tone of the outside interference were inept and inappropriate, coming from the same people who applauded the diversity of the previous government for including Arab and far-left parties. But it’s not unprecedented, and the new government and its supporters in Israel and the diaspora must prepare for the second wave, and for how the government will react to a cacophony of criticism.

Let’s turn the clock back some 25 years, when a much younger and more combative Netanyahu first became Israel’s prime minister.

At the time, IDF general Ariel Sharon was the bête noire of both the international community and the Israeli left for his role in Israel’s ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s. President Clinton pressured Netanyahu not to appoint Sharon as defense minister, even though he was Bibi’s most seasoned military hand. Netanyahu bent to the pressure and put Sharon in charge of a new Ministry of Infrastructure, which no longer exists.

If Bibi bent, Sharon broke.

Two years later, Sharon accompanied Netanyahu to the Wye Plantation talks, at which Clinton coerced Israel to cede parts of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority. I remember thinking at the time that as long as Sharon was riding shotgun with Bibi, Hebron was safe.

I was wrong. Not only did Sharon not stand in the way, but he even upped the ante seven years later when he presided over the destruction of Jewish communities in Gaza and the northern Shomron near Jenin, expelling 19,000 Jews from their homes and thriving farms.

Israel suffers from these monumental mistakes to this day. Gaza has turned into a fortress run by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, while Jenin is the most bellicose hotbed of Palestinian Authority terror.

There is no telling how much the international pressure campaign affected Sharon’s 180-degree turn — from telling Jewish settlers to grab every available hilltop while they still had a chance, to instead giving strategic territory from our biblical heartland away to our sworn enemies.

How much of his U-turn was driven by his desire to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the international community?

The conventional wisdom is that Ben Gvir and Smotrich are much tougher — they’re religious Zionists, unlike Sharon, who was secular, and they have the courage of their convictions.

They said the same thing about Naftali Bennett. I’m not trying to draw comparisons between people, but politics, like history, tends to repeat itself. Remember, the view from here isn’t the view from there. No one is immune from that thinking. And no one likes to be bashed in the media every day. Ben Gvir has already received death threats that necessitate extra protection for him and his family.

Reality Check

Netanyahu’s plan to carve up existing ministries and create the new Ministry of National Security was devised to keep Ben Gvir’s power in check.

On paper, Ben Gvir will have supervisory powers over 18 Border Patrol units responsible for maintaining order in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. But the IDF will still make the operational decisions, as they always do, in consultation with the Security Cabinet, Defense Ministry, and intelligence chiefs.

The Border Patrol is hoping Ben Gvir will secure larger budgets so it can expand its scope and effectiveness, but Ben Gvir will find himself in the crosshairs whenever the IDF brass orders an evacuation of an “illegal” Jewish outpost that’s causing international consternation. And imagine the outcry if Ben Gvir decides it’s time to start enforcing the law against illegal Arab settlements in Judea and Samaria.

Ben Gvir may have the title, but he doesn’t hold all the cards. Expect clashes in which he will joust with everyone and anyone, including his voters.

The same applies to Smotrich. He’s a more seasoned politician, and he has prior cabinet experience, in the Transportation Ministry, where he won public acclaim.

But Smotrich was never a serious candidate for the Defense Ministry, and the Biden administration misspent political capital lobbying against him. The Likud has a gentleman named Yoav Galant who is number four on the party list, a former IDF major general who fought in Lebanon and Gaza and led the Navy’s southern command. There’s no way Smotrich was beating him out for the job.

Smotrich will likely become finance minister, but no matter who gets the job, his or her first task will be to cancel or pare down a wave of planned price hikes on gasoline, electricity, and property taxes scheduled to take effect on or before January 1.

As this new government settles in, neither the greatest fears of the international community nor the highest hopes of Israelis who elected it are likely to be borne out.

But the political labels have already been flung about, and some of them have stuck. Ben Gvir and Smotrich are far-right, or even ultranationalists, whatever exactly that means. Shas and UTJ will also have to fend off attempts at delegitimization as dark, antiquated forces when it comes to matters of religion and state.

The chorus of critics might have been defeated at the polls, but they haven’t stopped rehearsing their lines, and they will get louder with each passing day.

We need to steel ourselves.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 938)

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