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Israel’s Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir in open war over Gaza escalation

Against the backdrop of Gaza tensions and in the most serious dispute so far within the Netanyahu government, the Likud party and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir exchanged threats in the media.
A demonstrator looks at placards depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir (L).

JERUSALEM — Disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, denied so far by both sides, are currently out in the open, raising questions over the stability of the partnership between the Likud and the far-right Jewish Power party.

The death in prison of security detainee Khader Adnan while on a hunger strike last Tuesday resulted in an escalation of violence along Israel’s border with Gaza. Over 100 rockets were fired at settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip, leaving three people injured. But the Islamic Jihad activist’s death was also responsible for the most vociferous unrest among the members of Netanyahu’s fractious coalition since it was first formed four months ago. 

Israel’s response to the rocket fire was relatively moderate. It consisted of tank fire and bombings of Gaza by Israeli aircraft. The fighting stopped in just 24 hours, but that was when Netanyahu came under fire from his own coalition partners, led by Ben-Gvir.

Over the last few weeks, Ben-Gvir had been complaining that he was being excluded from discussions about national security. He was outraged after the rocket attacks from Gaza once he learned that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held a meeting with senior members of the defense to assess the current situation — and that they held these meetings without inviting him.

By that time, Ben-Gvir felt no obligations to the coalition. He and the members of his Jewish Power faction traveled to Sderot, the southern town that absorbed most of the rocket fire, in order to launch a media attack on Netanyahu and his alleged lax policies in Gaza. But even that was not enough for the leader of the far-right party. Ben-Gvir also boycotted that day’s votes in the Knesset to prove his discontent. 

Shifting the blame

Ben-Gvir had good reason to choose Sderot, a town closely identified with Netanyahu and the right and in which the parties in the current coalition won 80% of the vote — with Ben-Gvir’s party winning 25% of the vote, making it the second largest party in the town. During his election campaign, Ben-Gvir was seen as being able to provide security to the local residents. Once the government failed to ensure people’s safety, especially in Sderot, Ben-Gvir started losing support. This time, when he arrived in town, his voters were angry. Ben-Gvir’s attack on the government was intended to provide an excuse for why the situation remains volatile. 

This time, however, Netanyahu was in no hurry to placate Ben-Gvir, as he tended to do in previous crises. Netanyahu has also been suffering in the polls, and his Likud party has been hemorrhaging voters. His image as the responsible adult in government suffered severely due to the protests against his plan for a judicial overhaul, which was seen as an assault on democracy and harmful to the country’s close relationship with US President Joe Biden.

As a result, the Likud’s response to Ben-Gvir was intended to make clear to everyone that Netanyahu is still in charge. It was designed to restore control to the prime minister, or at least to mend his tarnished image. “It is the prime minister who decides who the relevant participants are in the government’s discussions,” read the official Likud statement. “If this is unacceptable to Minister Ben-Gvir, he is under no obligation to remain in the government.”

But this was not enough to put an end to the clashes between the two men. Ben-Gvir was quick to respond at a makeshift press conference, which was posted to his Facebook page. In it, he attacked the government at large and Netanyahu in particular. “Regretfully, as I have said before, this is not a fully, fully right-wing government. Gaza fires at us again and again, and our response is flaccid and weak.” He then addressed Netanyahu directly: “If you don’t want Jewish Power party in the government, you are welcome to fire us. You are welcome to send us home.” 

Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir trapped, left with little choice

So far, neither Netanyahu nor Ben-Gvir has acted upon his threats. Neither of them has a political alternative, and in Ben-Gvir’s case, he cannot allow himself to be seen as the person who brought down a right-wing coalition. He was told as much by his election partner, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who said, “Bringing down the government is rewarding terrorism. Let’s all calm down.”

But this tense dynamic can escalate easily. Ben-Gvir is a populist politician who is quick to act on a whim. In the last election campaign, he presented himself as a savior, promising to restore order in the streets. That was his ticket into the government. Then reality struck him in the face. He has proven himself unable to provide the goods and is losing support among the public. 

As someone who never served in government and who built his reputation as a member of the opposition, even among his allies on the right, Ben-Gvir now finds himself trapped. He has no one to complain about since he is now the minister in charge, while Netanyahu is taking a moderate approach to security. 

Ben-Gvir was furious at the decision to close the Temple Mount to Jewish prayer so as not to cause the situation to escalate as Ramadan drew to a close. He is livid at the way the government has been restraining itself in response to rocket fire from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza; at the softening of the proposed judicial overhaul; and at the government's failure to evacuate  Palestinian residents of West Bank Khan al-Akhmar village. Netanyahu’s moderate response to the latest rocket fire from Gaza proved to be too much for Ben-Gvir.

One senior Likud party minister told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that “Ben-Gvir doesn’t understand what responsibility is. The prime minister cannot launch an attack on Gaza just because Ben-Gvir is threatening him. There's a wide range of considerations. Ben-Gvir needs to understand this or else it will be the last time he is a minister. The right will not forgive him if he takes the whole thing (the government) apart.”

Netanyahu is relying precisely on that. He realizes that people believe he is paying too steep a price just to maintain his partnership with Ben-Gvir and the far right, and that this is harming his relations overseas as well. His conclusion is that he cannot allow himself to be seen as doing the bidding of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, both of whom are persona non grata in the United States. 

Netanyahu is trying to arrange a visit to the White House, so everything he does is designed to depict himself as being moderate and responsible. He wants to present himself to the world as a prime minister who can lead his country forward and lower the intensity of the protests against his judicial reform. He cannot let Ben-Gvir ruin all of that for him. 

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