By Philissa Cramer
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the right-wing Israeli politician called a “pyromaniac” by his critics because of his penchant for inflaming his country’s deep tensions, will head Israel’s police forces, under the terms of a deal inked with Benjamin Netanyahu early Friday.
The deal would expand the ministry of internal security, the old name of the cabinet position in charge of the police, into the ministry of national security and would also give Ben-Gvir authority over border police in Palestinian territories, according to the terms reported in Israeli media.
In the role, Ben-Gvir will have the power to carry out some of his long-held wishes, including loosening rules so that officers can open fire on Palestinians who throw stones and expanding the ability of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, the Jerusalem site that is home to the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Ben-Gvir — an acolyte of Meir Kahane, a rabbi barred from Israel’s parliament in the 1980s because of his racism — has ignited conflict by accompanying Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, where Jewish prayer has been strictly limited for security reasons. Twice convicted of incitement in Israeli courts, Ben-Gvir has also called for annexing large parts of the West Bank and for deporting Arabs who are not loyal to Israel.
The agreement between Ben-Gvir’s party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), and Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, does not mean that Netanyahu has finished forming a governing coalition, which he is charged with doing after receiving a majority of parliament seats in Israel’s Nov. 1 election. But it is a crucial step that indicates progress among the parties — and indicates that any who hopes that Netanyahu would not in fact elevate Ben-Gvir and others in his far-right bloc are likely to be disappointed.
Some U.S. Jewish groups have expressed discomfort with Ben-Gvir and his allies being installed in government, saying that the right-wing lawmakers’ vision for Israel is at odds with that of American Jews; others have remained silent, perhaps recognizing that they may have to work with a government that includes him. The Biden administration is considering refusing to meet with Ben-Gvir, though his expanded portfolio would likely create more opportunities for such meetings.
Netanyahu is still working to finalize an agreement with Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party. Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to give Smotrich authority over Israel’s administration of the West Bank, including construction and demolition of both Palestinian and Jewish settlements. But the pair are reportedly at odds over whether Smotrich, who has disparaged non-Orthodox Jews, should get control of the government division that oversees Jewish conversion.