KIRYAT ARBA, West Bank — When Itamar Ben Gvir walked into his local polling station on the morning of the previous election 19 months ago, there was barely anyone there to greet him.
The Religious Zionism candidate waited patiently in line at a school in the southern West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, where the elderly woman in front of him did not appear to recognize him. He then cast his ballot, recorded a brief video statement for all of the reporters who were not part of his entourage and got back into his modest vehicle en route to subsequent campaign stops.
At the time, he was a fringe candidate who only managed to sneak into the Knesset, after three failed attempts, thanks to a merger with fellow far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich engineered by Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.
But when Ben Gvir pulled up at the same polling station on Tuesday, he did so in a convoy of SUVs. He was wearing a tie and a much fancier suit than the one he had on last year and was surrounded by security guards, who kept him apart from the dozen-plus reporters and photographers who had been awaiting his arrival.
There was good reason for the entourage. Polls predict Ben Gvir’s Religious Zionism party, in which he is No. 2, will make significant gains in the Knesset — from its current seven-seat total to between 12 and 15 seats.
Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has been convicted on multiple terror-related charges, although he also insists he has become more moderate in recent years and does not hold the same beliefs as the Kach founder. He has gone on to become a lawyer, serving as defense attorney in dozens of high-profile cases.
Ben Gvir spent the morning making stops in some of the same southern towns he visited on the previous election day — places that have long been strongholds for other right-wing parties. But the crowds that mobbed him on Tuesday indicated a shift to the far-right taking place among Israeli voters.
That shift was what led Netanyahu and the leaders of the two ultra-Orthodox parties to plead for the loyalty of their voter bases in the lead-up to the election, insisting that Ben Gvir would be receiving a ministerial post regardless of the number of seats his party won. By contrast, last year Netanyahu even encouraged voters on the fence to vote for Religious Zionism in an effort to ensure that the far-right party would cross the threshold.
But the messaging of Ben Gvir’s campaign — focused as it was on wielding an iron fist against “disloyal” Palestinians and Arab Israelis, enacting the death penalty for terrorists and improving Israelis’ sense of security more broadly — has resonated in a country where many citizens feel that the more nuanced policies of other parties have fallen short.
At his second campaign stop, in Kiryat Malachi, Ben Gvir was greeted by chants of “The next prime minister has arrived” from over a dozen ultra-Orthodox elementary school boys. The far-right lawmaker quickly corrected them that he only wants to be public security minister — at least this time around.
Netanyahu appeared to welcome Ben Gvir’s demand for the post — which oversees the police — after it was made last week, but the former prime minister’s right-religious bloc will first need to win 61 seats to form a coalition. Polls, although notoriously unreliable, for months have consistently indicated that the group will fall just short.
Some of Religious Zionism’s newest supporters voted in the previous election for Yamina — the somewhat more moderate religious-led party that wound up breaking with the rest of the bloc to form a motley coalition with anti-Netanyahu parties.
Ben Gvir’s far-right party has also been poaching votes from Haredi parties.
In Kiryat Malachi on Tuesday, the group of ultra-Orthodox boys, who were all dressed in white dress shirts and black slacks, excitedly said that their parents were voting for Religious Zionism.
“They’re done with Shas!” one of them proclaimed, referring to the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party. “The time has come for Ben Gvir!”
Their excitement didn’t stop a lone Shas supporter from pleading with voters as they entered the polling station, apparently to no avail, as one after the other told him that they were “voting Ben Gvir.”
In the town of Sderot, which has long been the target of rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip, word of the far-right politician’s arrival got out ahead of time.
“Guys, Ben Gvir is coming!” shouted a man selling produce at the city’s open market. The excited greengrocer pulled out a speaker and microphone from underneath his nectarines and started playing the campaign jingle for Ben Gvir’s party.
Several minutes later, the lawmaker’s convoy arrived and was mobbed by several dozen excited shoppers, who hugged, kissed and took selfies with him.
“We’re here to tell our enemies who’s master of the house!” one of them shouted after being passed the microphone.
Asked whether he felt a difference between this election and the previous one, Ben Gvir responded, “You feel the level of support this time. I don’t know how it’ll end, but you really feel it.”
“It’ll end with 17 seats,” shouted a man selling grapes who overhead the question.
“God willing,” Ben Gvir piped in.
Back on the microphone as he marched through the market, Ben Gvir declared, “It’s time to return security to the Negev.”
“What about Sderot?” muttered a seemingly unimpressed onlooker — among those who did not leave their posts to surround Ben Gvir.
The man, who identified himself only as Eli, said he’d be voting Likud. “What does that man have to do with me?” he asked.
Likud won 40 percent of Sderot’s votes in the last election, almost four times more than any other party.
Undeterred, Ben Gvir started holding court behind one of the fruit stands, shouting, “Guys! Tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon and pineapple. A full-on right-wing government!”
“Take a picture of me with our king,” said one shopper, passing his phone to a neighbor so he could snap a photo with the lawmaker aiming to be the next public security minister.