Less than two weeks ago, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to share a stage with the rising star of the extreme right, ultranationalist Itamar Ben Gvir. This week, Netanyahu missed no opportunity to sing his praises.
What brought about this change? It seems that several of Netanyahu’s supporters from the Likud did not like the way he treated Ben Gvir. Not only did they side with the latter, but some even said they would vote for him. The Likud started to suffer in the polls.
Netanyahu immediately corrected course and embraced Ben Gvir at an Oct. 23 conference organized by Channel 14, saying Ben Gvir could become a minister in a future government under his lead.
In the last election campaign, Netanyahu had said the opposite, declaring that Ben Gvir would not serve as a minister in any government he forms. Now, Netanyahu has committed to making one of the people most identified with the incitement preceding the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a full partner in his coalition.
On Oct. 24, Netanyahu drew even closer to Ben Gvir, saying that he would not “bow [his] head” to US lawmakers who have warned against allowing Ben Gvir to make further political gains after the Nov. 1 elections.
Netanyahu then addressed last month's warning from Senator Robert Menendez in a meeting between the two of them.
“I said to Menendez: ‘Are you talking to me about [Ben Gvir], who believes in the State of Israel and supports IDF soldiers? I haven’t heard a word about [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz and [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid partnering with [Ra’am leader] Mansour Abbas and the Muslim Brotherhood, who deny Israel as a Jewish state and go to the mourning tents of murderers of Jews.'”
The Times of Israel reported today that UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed warned Netanyahu last month against including Ben Gvir and his partner Bezalel Smotrich. The Emirati warning evidently had little effect.
Ben Gvir is a matador’s red cape for many Israelis, and not just on the center-left. Even Israelis on the right who identify with the institutions of statehood are uncomfortable with him. Senior politicians who have left the Likud in recent years including Justice Minister Gideon Saar have also been warning about the problems of including Ben Gvir in a government.
Still, with one week only to go before election day, Netanyahu is taking the strategic risk. Polls show the Religious Zionism party headed by Ben Gvir and Smotrich continues to get stronger at the expense of the Likud. Voters on the right are increasingly supporting far-right candidates over Netanyahu's comparatively moderate Likud.
Seeing this shift, Netanyahu has embraced Ben Gvir. His message to the voters is clear: Even if you vote for me and not for him, you’ll get Ben Gvir in the government. I will make sure that Ben Gvir is a minister in my government no matter how many seats the Religious Zionism party wins.
With Lapid’s Yesh Atid reaching record support in polls this week, Netanyahu has one goal: for the Likud to win.