Ultranationalist activist Bentzi Gopstein, who was banned by the High Court of Justice from running for the Knesset, is advising National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and police top brass.
Gopstein is now facing charges of incitement to racism and terrorism.
Several sources told Haaretz that Gopstein, chairman of the far-right Lehava organization, is involved in decisions pertaining to senior police officers and to routine police activity such as appointing commanders. Gopstein also attended several closed-door meetings in Ben-Gvir’s office in the National Security Ministry, the sources said.
Gopstein has counseled Ben-Gvir to reprimand a few police commanders, including Border Police commander Amir Cohen, and Ben-Gvir has heeded his advice. The specific move with Cohen followed the commander’s backing the Border Police forces who were guarding the evacuation of a vineyard in the West Bank.
Gopstein also told Ben-Gvir to demand the police launch a broad operation in East Jerusalem following the terror attack in the city in February. That evening, Ben-Gvir said he had instructed the police to prepare for an operation “to take care of the terror nests in East Jerusalem,” which he called “Defensive Shield Two.” The instruction contravened the position of both government officials and police officers.
“Gopstein advises and is very involved in many decisions regarding the police top brass and its conduct,” a security force official said. “Gopstein, Hanamel Dorfman and [Ben-Gvir’s wife] Ayala are the closest people to Ben-Gvir and wield influence on him.” The source said, “It’s insane that this man advises the national security minister.”Another source said Gopstein is also involved in the round of appointments in the police top brass, which ministry officials are now discussing. “Gopstein is the most dominant adviser,” a source said.
Ben-Gvir isn’t the only minister to keep a team of advisers, consisting of his aides and close friends. Gopstein has no official position and as is not known to be on the ministry’s payroll. It isn’t against the law for Ben-Gvir to consult with Gopstein, nor is it a precedent. Jewish underground member Nathan Nathanson, who was convicted for terror acts against Palestinians, was adviser to former minister Uri Ariel and was a member of Habayit Hayehudi’s negotiation team. However, the current indictment against Gopstein and the High Court’s ruling in his case raise serious questions.
Gopstein is also close to another senior official in Ben-Gvir’s ministry – chief of staff Hanamel Dorfman, himself a former person of interest of the Shin Bet security service. Far-right activist Dorman married Gopstein’s daughter in 2013 in what has become known as “the wedding of the knives.” He was filmed dancing at the wedding with knives in his hand to the sounds of a revenge song “Zochreni na” (“Remember me”).
“The first condition for my coming to a wedding is that there aren’t Palestinians at our wedding…Let’s say that if there was an Arab waiter here he wouldn’t be serving the food. He’d be looking for the nearest hospital, I think,” Gopstein said at a wedding in a report broadcast on Channel 12 News. He is now on trial for incitement to violence for this statement.
Gopstein has accumulated power in his party, Otzma Yehudit. Party operatives and other sources told Haaretz that its director general is Itiel Neiman, but that Gopstein and Ben-Gvir are the ones running it. “Bentzi is the one who decides who runs, who contends, operations, everything,” a senior party member said.
The two have been vetting candidates in recent months for local government elections due in October. “At first they tried to keep Gopstein from the front, especially in elections, so that he doesn’t drive voters away. But he’s the most important man in the movement,” a senior party source says.
Gopstein’s power in the party can be seen in his conduct in its Whatsapp group. In one case, after Ben-Gvir ousted MK Almog Cohen from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Gopstein lashed out at Cohen in the activists’ group. “No one knew you before, Itamar raised you to greatness and you spit in his face,” he wrote. “Almog is loyal only to Almog. Otzma Yehudit has a chairman and he decides after he consults.”
In another incident, a party activist wrote that Cohen had helped her after another member had harassed her. She reminded those waiting for his resignation that the next candidate on the party’s Knesset list had given free guest rooms he owned to the suspects in a gang rape case involving a tourist in Cyprus.
Gopstein responded in the group: “Calm down.”Gopstein and Ben-Gvir have been cronies for many years.
The ultranationalist and cabinet minister used to demonstrate together against the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. In the coalition agreement with Likud, Ben-Gvir asked to amend the law so that incitement to racism is no longer an impediment to running for the Knesset. “He did it more for Bentzi, not for Marzel,” an Otzma Yehudit source said. Gopstein, meanwhile pushes video clips supporting Ben-Gvir, filled with praise. In one clip, distributed after the last round of fighting in the Gaza Strip, Gopstein said: “This week, God willing, due to Otzma Yehudit and Minister Ben-Gvir’s insistence, Israel responded a little in Gaza and wiped out all kinds of fugitives. A little isn’t enough, but it’s a good beginning.” He added, “Enemies are for fighting until you destroy them.”
Gopstein, 53, was formerly in the Shin Bet crosshairs. A follower of Kach founder Meir Kahana and a movement activist, he was suspected of murdering two Palestinians in revenge for Kahana’s murder in 1990. But he was released due to a lack of evidence and the case was closed. Gopstein was in administrative detention in 1994. In 2009, he founded Lehava. He was arrested in 2014 on suspicion of incitement to racism. Ben-Gvir, who is Gopstein’s neighbor in Kiryat Arba, represented him then as his lawyer. Lehava operates via an NGO called The Foundation for the Salvation of the People of Israel, whose members include Gopstein and Ayala Ben-Gvir.
In 2018, Facebook closed down Gopstein’s and Lehava’s accounts due to racist statements on their pages, explaining the pages spread “organized hatred and hatred statements” in violation of its rules.
Gopstein sued Facebook for 250,000 shekels ($68,400), but has recently withdrawn the suit after reaching an out-of-court settlement with the social network.
In 2019, Gopstein sought to run for the Knesset as part of Otzma Yehudit, but an expanded panel of nine High Court justices forbade him to do so because of his racist statements against Arabs.
That same year, Gopstein was indicted for incitement to racism, violence and terror over several anti-Arab statements. The charge of inciting terrorism stems from a 2017 wedding which Gopstein attended, where on stage, he sang the following lyrics: “Blessed is the man, he entered the cave, through the weapon and shot,” referring to Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslims in the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The charge for incitement to racism stems from a 2014 statement he made, saying, “The enemies within us are a cancer. If we don’t take the cancer and remove it, we won’t survive here, and Jews will die every day.”
Gopstein said in response to this article “I don’t respond to Haaretz.” A minute later, his office threatened to sue for libel if the article is published. “Josh Breiner’s and Haaretz’s obsession against Minister Ben-Gvir and his office is very embarrassing and opposed to all journalistic ethics,” his office commented.