Israel's far-right Ben-Gvir may be election kingmaker

STORY: Benjamin Netanyahu, the right wing former prime minister of Israel, is campaigning hard to get his old job back in parliamentary elections set for next week.

But for the man known commonly as "Bibi," putting together - and leading - a coalition government may require the help of an ultranationalist firebrand once convicted of racist incitement.

Itamar Ben-Gvir leads the "Jewish Power" party, which has joined forces this election with another far-right faction and are together projected to win as many as 13 seats in Israel's 120-member Knesset.

That would not just signal the Israeli electorate's steady march to the right, but make the 46-year-old Ben-Gvir a potential kingmaker in a future governing coalition.

"Itamar Ben-Gvir is behaving very measuredly and he’s very calculated."

Amotz Asa-El is a political analyst with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

"He's extremely cautious to not ever be caught saying anything that's illegal to say. And all this lends to what is apparently a strategy on his part to appear more mellow than the image that he originally crafted back in his teens."

Footage provided by Ben-Gvir's campaign shows the candidate being mobbed by group of Israeli youth scouts, who chant his name and crush forward to take selfies.

It's a far cry from this video from 2004, showing a young Ben-Gvir celebrating the death of Palestinian leader and former militant Yasser Arafat. Police disrupt the gathering and escort him away.

In 2007 he was convicted of racist incitement and support for the Kach organization, a Jewish supremacist movement listed as a terror group by both Israel and the U.S.

In a prior election, Netanyahu ruled out joining forces with Ben-Gvir. But there are signals Bibi may now be more welcoming. A Netanyahu confidant last month said of Ben-Gvir, "I would do anything for him to be part of the government," adding that he would "have to adjust himself to Likud's positions and to the government's policy".

Ben-Gvir now says he no longer supports the expulsions of all Palestinians - just those he deems traitors or terrorists.

"I'm for equality of rights but whoever raises his hand against a soldier, whoever goes out against the State of Israel, whoever wants to turn this into Palestine - it's not his place. I have no problem with Arabs as Arabs, whoever wants to live here in peace, serenity and quiet - that's great."

But he also wants to give Israeli security forces a freer hand to use lethal force to combat Palestinian protesters and militant groups.

When asked about his 2007 conviction on Israel's Channel 12 television last month, he said it was a long time ago and said he had moved on in life.

Reuters sent Ben-Gvir questions on his past links to the outlawed Israeli Kach group and criminal record.

In a response on Twitter, his spokesman accused Reuters of being "biased" in its line of questioning.

The tweet was later deleted, and the spokesman then sent links to Ben-Gvir's previous televised comments.

Asa-El sees the rise of Ben-Gvir as part of a global shift favoring far-right authoritarians.

"We see now the far right is successful in Sweden, we see it successful in Italy, we see we see it ruling in Hungary, we see it outspoken anywhere and everywhere from Brazil to the Philippines. And maybe this success of this Israeli far right is part of this global trend."

Were Ben-Gvir to win a ministerial role, it might further entrench Israel's standoff with the Palestinians and strain its internal Jewish-Arab ties. It could also be a test for Israel's bedrock U.S. relations. Democratic President Joe Biden has voiced support for a return to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The U.S. State Department did not respond to a Reuters query on whether it was concerned that Ben-Gvir might have a role in the next Israeli coalition.