Netanyahu dodges photo-op with Itamar Ben-Gvir

Benjamin Netanyahu distances himself from Religious Zionism party’s number 2 man.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to  be photographed next to Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben-Gvir at a Simchat Torah event on Monday night.

Ben-Gvir, a right-wing politician who has sparked controversy due to his staunchly nationalist policies, has long been the object of scorn from left-wing and centrist parties.

At a holiday event in Kfar Chabad on Monday evening, Netanyahu avoided being photographed next to Ben-Gvir and refused to stand on the same stage as the Religious Zionism MK.

In a video of the event circulating on social media, an unidentified Netanyahu aide can be heard explaining that Netanyahu “won’t go up [onto the stage] if Itamar [Ben-Gvir] doesn’t go down.”

A Netanyahu advisor was later heard telling Ben-Gvir that “an image of the two of you will prevent the option of forming a broad government with [center-left politician Benny] Gantz.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads the centrist Blue & White party.

In a statement on Tuesday morning, Ben-Gvir said he was “disappointed” by the course of events, but was careful not to blame Netanyahu.

Instead, Ben-Gvir said his frustration was directed towards “those around Netanyahu and the disgruntled Likud MKs who prefer a government with Gantz” than with his party.

According to recent polls, Religious Zionism is poised to become the 120-seat Knesset’s third-largest party with an estimated 12-14 seats. The same polls forecast 11-12 seats for Blue & White.

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Multiple center-left politicians have said they will not join a governing coalition that includes the Religious Zionism party.

In August, Netanyahu brokered an agreement between Religious Zionist leader Betzalel Smotrich to unite with Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit faction

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Brad Sherman, who are both Democrats, recently issued a statement warning that a government which includes Ben-Gvir could potentially damage U.S.-Israel relations.

In a statement which appeared to address Netanyahu but did not mention him by name, Sherman urged Israel’s political leadership “to ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben Gvir, whose outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state…These extremists undermine Israel’s interests, which I and my colleagues have worked hard to strengthen.”