Tel Aviv — Israelis will vote on Tuesday for the fifth time in just four years to determine who should lead their country. The elections are to determine who will fill the 120 seats of Israel’s parliament, called the Knesset. There are 13 different political parties fielding candidates. If one party were to win a simple majority of 61 seats, it could form a new government.
Recent polls show no party will win 61 seats this week, so the leader of the party that wins the most votes gets the first chance to partner with other parties to make up the 61 seats in the Knesset and form a coalition government. If the party that wins the most votes can’t build a coalition, the runner-up party gets a chance.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was ousted last year after a dozen years in power, is asking Israeli voters to give him another chance in the nation’s top job. Current Prime Minister Yair Lapid is hoping, on the other hand, that his brief stint as head of the caretaker government that took over when Netanyahu was ousted has proven his abilities as a leader.
But neither Netanyahu’s hard-line Likud party nor Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid is likely to win the 61 seats on their own. So, both men will be looking to build prospective coalitions with other, smaller political parties to make up the 61 seats in the Knesset required to form a government.
If both Netanyahu and Lapid fail to negotiate sufficient support from smaller parties, Israel could be forced to hold yet another election. With much of the population eager to put politicking aside in favor of governance after the rapid succession of elections, some smaller parties will be looking to act as kingmakers.
Polling ahead of this week’s election gave Netanyahu a slim advantage over Lapid. If the embattled former premier does beat out his chief foe in the polls, he may turn to one rising star of Israel’s far-right, current Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, to build a coalition.
Ben-Gvir leads a party called Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). A resident of a Jewish settlement in Hebron and follower of the ultranationalist American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben-Gvir was elected to the parliament during the last round of voting in 2021. Not long before that, he was a divisive figure looming largely on the margins of Israel’s far-right.
His first moment in the spotlight came in 1995, when he stole the Cadillac emblem off Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin’s car. Ben-Gvir held up the Cadillac badge to a TV camera and said: “Just as we got to his car, we will get to him.”
Rabin was assassinated just weeks later by a Jewish far-right nationalist.
Ben-Gvir has had countless run-ins with the police and a number of court appearances in the years since. He was convicted of inciting racism for taking part in attacks on Arabs, and for supporting a Jewish nationalist terror cell. When he was 18 years old, the Israel Defense Forces declined to draft him into the army.
Ben-Gvir went to law school and then sued the Israeli government for casting wrongful accusations, and he won. Since then he has worked as a lawyer defending far-right activists.
As an activist himself, he became popular among marginalized groups in Israeli society, including among young ultra-Orthodox Jews who felt they didn’t fit in with the existing ultra-Orthodox establishment. Ben-Gvir also became a hero in some poor neighborhoods, where he would show up and support movements against foreign migration, especially from Africa. He has also expressed anti-LGTBQ views.
In recent years, Ben-Gvir has led the nationalist “March of the Flags” on Jerusalem Day, which has become a flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2021, thebetween Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The politician has been known to show up at any clash between Palestinians and Israelis in disputed east Jerusalem, and even to brandish a gun at such flareups.
In 2021, Ben-Gvir joined forces with two other right-wing parties, the Religious Zionist Party and Noam. For the coming election, Ben-Gvir threatened to break from the alliance, but rejoined to ensure the parties will get enough votes to cross the threshold required to hold seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu helped orchestrate that partnership, knowing he will need both parties to join any coalition he hopes to form.
With recent polls showing Ben-Gvir’s party may win more than a dozen seats itself, if Netanyahu does form the next government, he could even give his far-right ally a seat in the cabinet.
Ben-Gvir’s rise has fueled fear among Israel’s center and left-leaning Israelis. Some believe he represents the biggest threat Israel’s democracy has ever faced.