The extreme-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir is set to be Israel’s new national security minister after his Jewish Power party reached an agreement with the Likud grouping of the prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.
The deal will give Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist previously convicted of incitement to racism, a seat in the prospective government’s cabinet, as well as making him responsible for the police.
“We took an important step tonight towards establishing a fully rightwing government,” Ben-Gvir said in a statement on Friday morning, urging other rightwing parties to form a new government “as quickly as possible”.
Likud, Jewish Power and three other rightwing and ultraorthodox groups have been locked in coalition negotiations since scoring a decisive victory in parliamentary elections this month.
The unexpectedly clear result paved the way for the formation of what would be the most rightwing government in Israeli history. However, despite their relative ideological coherence, coalition negotiations between the parties have dragged on over competing demands for ministerial posts.
All five groups must reach agreements before a new administration can take office.
Under the agreement between Likud and Jewish Power, Ben-Gvir’s national security ministry will have a beefed-up version of the powers of the old ministry of public security, including control over the border police that operate in the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority’s ministry of foreign affairs said that Netanyahu’s deal with Ben-Gvir would have “potentially catastrophic results” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for “what is left of the relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli sides”.
A disciple of Meir Kahane, a rabbi who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of citizenship and whose party was designated a terrorist organisation by the US, Ben-Gvir was on the fringes of Israeli politics until he entered parliament last year.
At the time, Netanyahu said that Ben-Gvir — who until a couple of years ago kept in his house a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians in a mosque in 1994 — was not fit to serve as a minister.
However, as Ben-Gvir’s popularity surged in the run-up to this year’s poll, Netanyahu changed tack and acknowledged that the 46-year-old lawyer was likely to become a member of his cabinet.
During the campaign, Ben-Gvir wooed hardline voters with pledges to expel Palestinians he deemed traitors, and give Israeli soldiers engaged in confrontations with “terrorists” immunity from prosecution.
Two weeks before the election, at a stand-off between Arab and Jewish youths in East Jerusalem, he brandished a handgun and urged police to shoot at Palestinians who were throwing stones.
But since the election, he has sought to distance himself from some of his earlier positions and actions, such as the Goldstein portrait, writing in an article published on November 7 that he had “matured”. “I’ve become more moderate and I’ve come to understand life is more complicated,” he wrote.
A couple of days later, he appeared at a memorial event for Kahane in Jerusalem. Although he used his appearance to say that he did not support Kahane’s ambitions for “the deportation of all Arabs” and “separate beaches”, he praised Kahane as being “about love. Love for Israel without compromise, without any other consideration”.
His appearance at the memorial was roundly condemned by the US administration. Asked about Ben-Gvir’s decision to attend, state department spokesman Ned Price said that “celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organisation is abhorrent”.
“There is no other word for it. It is abhorrent. And we remain concerned, as we’ve said before, by the legacy of Kahane Chai and the continued use of rhetoric among violent rightwing extremists,” he added.
The five parties have until December 11 to agree on a new government. If they fail to do so, the negotiating period can be extended for another 14 days.