‘A nuclear bomb on Gaza is an option’. It was just one provocation from far-right cabinet members who encouraged Prime Minister Netanyahu to go further in his controversial Gaza offensive. Criticism of these religious ultranationalists is also growing in Israel. “Netanyahu is willing to rule even with lunatics, as long as he stays in power.”
Israeli Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu said last Sunday that one of Israel’s options in the war against Hamas could be “to drop a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip.” The comment was quickly denied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also suspended the minister from cabinet meetings.
The incident illustrates how much Netanyahu is continually hunted by his far-right coalition parties, including Eliyahu’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and the Religious Zionist Party of Finance Minister Belazel Smotrich.
Under pressure from Ben Gvir, the Prime Minister did not dare to fire Minister Eliyahu. However, this was demanded by opposition leader Yair Lapid, who delicately noted that “the presence of the extremists in the government endangers us and the success of the war goals – the defeat of Hamas and the return of the prisoners.”
In a commentary, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz went even further. “Netanyahu’s (radical) right-wing ministers are a gift to Hamas,” wrote commentator Amir Tibon. “Millions of people around the world were exposed to Eliyahu’s quotes, and if the Hamas leadership wasn’t deep underground, they probably would have sent him a bouquet of flowers. Unfortunately, Eliyahu is not alone: almost every day, one of the extremist members of Netanyahu’s coalition inflicts this kind of damage.”
According to Tibon, it is important to note that these politicians are not part of the new war cabinet, and their fanaticism is now partly blocked by the centrist party of Benny Gantz, which came into government last month to counterbalance the extreme right.
Yet the damage has been done and, according to Tibon, one man is ultimately responsible for it: Benjamin Netanyahu. “The Prime Minister brought these extremists to the center of power, and he now refuses to send them away despite a pledge from opposition leader Lapid to remain part of the government if they are removed. Netanyahu knows this is bad for the country, but as always he puts his own political needs and personal good above any other consideration.”
By this, the newspaper refers to the pact that Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party concluded with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich at the end of last year to form the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
Ben-Gvir (46), who entered parliament in 2021, leads a far-right party called Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power.
Most Israelis first heard about Ben-Gvir in the fall of 1995 – a tense period in Israeli history. Even as suicide bombings occurred with alarming regularity, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a historic peace deal with Palestinian leaders. But the deal allowed swaths of Israeli-occupied land in the West Bank, which the right wing saw as a betrayal. Protests turned violent. On October 11 of that year, a nineteen-year-old Ben-Gvir appeared on television wearing a light blue T-shirt with his arm in a sling. He was holding a Cadillac emblem ripped from the prime minister’s car. “Just as we were able to take this emblem, we can also take Rabin,” he said. Three weeks later, law student Yigal Amir approached the prime minister at a peace demonstration in Tel Aviv and shot him twice. Rabin died shortly afterwards.
Ben-Gvir’s role model and ideological source is Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn rabbi who moved to Israel in 1971 and tested the country’s moral boundaries during one term in parliament. Kahane stated that “the idea of a democratic Jewish state is nonsense.” According to him, demographic trends would inevitably lead to non-Jews becoming a majority in Israel, and therefore the ideal solution was “the immediate relocation of the Arabs.”
Kahane even called Arabs “dogs.” His rhetoric was so virulent that lawmakers from both sides walked out of the Knesset when he spoke. His party, Kach, was eventually expelled from parliament in 1988. They are back with Jewish Power, an ideological split from Kach. Ben-Gvir was a youth leader at Kach and has called Kahane a ‘saint’. Ben-Gvir himself has been convicted of at least eight charges, including supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism.
On his first date with his future wife, Ben-Gvir visited the grave of Baruch Goldstein, an extremist settler who in 1994 shot twenty-nine Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs, a holy site for Muslims and Jews in Hebron. Until recently, a photo of Goldstein hung on the wall of the Ben-Gvirs’ living room in their home in the Kiryat Arba settlement in Hebron. In Ben-Gvir’s part of the city, Palestinians are banned from driving on many of the roads and are even banned from walking on streets designated as ‘sterile’.
Before entering parliament in 2021, Ben-Gvir was Israel’s top lawyer for suspected Jewish terrorists, settlers and the far right. For example, he defended the arsonist who set fire to a Palestinian house in the West Bank village of Duma, killing a baby. Later, Ben-Gvir was seen in a video of a wedding where friends of the arsonist, who was sentenced to life in prison, carved into a photo of the slain baby.
According to The New Yorker, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once called Ben-Gvir “a more immediate danger to Israel than a nuclear-armed Iran.” Ben-Gvir then became more liberal, semantically anyway. In 2015, he called on his followers to stop chanting “Death to the Arabs”: “You should say ‘Death to the terrorists’. That is legal with a stamp.” Or again: “I am not in favor of expelling all Arabs,” he once said in a speech, followed by: “But of course we will work to expel terrorists from the country.”
‘If they throw stones, shoot’
In the last elections, his fringe movement became a political party that captured up to a third of the votes among active military personnel. Netanyahu appointed him minister of national security, with leadership over the police and authority over border patrol units in the West Bank. Ben-Gvir proposed laws that would give soldiers immunity from prosecution. He even brandished a gun at rioters in Jerusalem who threw rocks at him. He told soldiers at the scene: ‘if they throw stones, shoot at them’.
On January 3 this year, surrounded by security and police, he walked onto the Temple Mount, in the Muslim section. His visit, which lasted thirteen minutes, was quickly condemned by the Arab world, the US and Turkey. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry called it a “blatant attack.” Netanyahu himself had issued a similar warning in 2020, saying that disrupting the status quo on the site “could unleash a billion Muslims on us.”
To shape his government, Netanyahu set the terms for an alliance between Ben-Gvir and the leader of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich, who would become the current Finance Minister.
Smotrich, who calls for the annexation of the West Bank and who once said that maternity wards in Israel should be segregated, positioned himself as the new elite of an educated, unapologetic religious-nationalist camp. But Smotrich above all represents a highly organized bloc of settlers from irregular settlements.
According to Dennis Baert, researcher at the Department of Jewish Studies (University of Antwerp), both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich “personify the failure of the idea that a peace process is possible,” especially after Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon proposed agreements at the beginning of this century that led to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, but after which the Palestinian Authority lost power to Hamas. It was very bitter for all Israelis to then see a terrorist organization take over the strip and fire rockets at them. Baert: “People like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir just became politically aware through their resistance to the dissolution of these types of settlements.” They also used the Hamas takeover of Gaza as an excuse to make any attempt at a negotiated withdrawal from the West Bank impossible.
In the past, Netanyahu’s Likud party, originally a classical liberal party, had never joined forces with these far-right politicians, according to Baert. “But in recent years, Netanyahu transformed his party into his ego movement and chose them as coalition partners because this allowed him to avoid a corruption trial. Netanyahu is willing to rule even with madmen, as long as he stays in power.”
The price that ordinary citizens of Israel and Gaza paid for this has been immeasurably heavy since the October 7 mass murders by Hamas and the subsequent counter-offensive.
The violence of war is currently distracting from the political responsibilities for the security blunders, but according to Baert, this will not last. “Top people in the army and security services are already stepping aside, but not yet in the cabinet. Ben-Gvir has already been marginalized and with good reason: as Minister of National Security, the Hamas massacre of October 7 happened partly under his political supervision. One day he will be asked: where were you, who always shouted ‘that terrorists would be given free rein if you leave the country to the center or the left’. As far as I’m concerned, they should be allowed to leave now. Extremists like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have no place in an Israeli government. Netanyahu will also sooner or later be called to account for what happened and you will also notice a lack of strategic clarity in his war in Gaza. He seems to be the only one who still believes that after all this he can remain as prime minister in the longer term.”