This week, as center-left rivals of Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu joined forces, the prime minister veered even further right for an impending electoral showdown, brokering a deal between his far-right allies and a fringe faction of extremists.
On Wednesday, the Jewish Home Party, part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, announced that it would be running a joint list with the right-wing extremist party Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power.”
Otzma Yehudit representatives Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir are slated to take the fifth and eighth spots on the list, respectively. This makes it highly likely that members of the party will be represented in the Knesset. The agreement calls for a joint list, though it states that the two parties will operate independently after the elections.
The prospect is extremely problematic from a moral standpoint.
Otzma Yehudit’s members are self-declared heirs to the teachings of Meir Kahane, a deceased politician whose party was outlawed in the 1980s for being a racist political movement. Members of Kahane’s movement Kach have carried out several attacks against Arabs, prompting its listing as a terrorist organization in Israel, the United States and the European Union. The Brooklyn-born Kahane believed it should be illegal for Jews and gentiles to have sexual intercourse or marry, and that Arabs should be encouraged to leave Israel and the occupied territories. He was also an outspoken opponent of democracy. Instead, Kach believed in establishing a theocratic Jewish kingdom.
Prior to the terrorist listing, Kach in 1984 won a single seat and the openly racist rabbi served as a member until 1988. That year, the Knesset passed a law outlawing the party. Kahane himself was assassinated in 1990.
The groups he founded, however, continue to pop up in various incarnations, the latest being Otzma Yehudit/Jewish Power. One of the current members of the fringe party, Michael Ben-Ari, was elected to the Knesset for the National Union list in 2009.
Blessed by Netanyahu
The latest union between Jewish Home and Jewish Power would not have attracted much attention had it not been actively encouraged by Netanyahu. The prime minister is reported to have called relatives of members of both parties as well as their rabbis in an effort to ensure the completion of the agreement.
In order to close the deal, the prime minister offered each party a “significant and equal” ministerial role in his future government.
He even promised to compensate the Jewish Home party by offering them the 28th spot on the Likud list for one of their members. Achieving this deal was important enough to the prime minister that he canceled a long-sought audience with Russian President Vladimir Putin to tie up the loose ends.
This is a complete change in the outlook of the Likud. Traditionally the ruling party billed itself as a national-liberal party, valuing the promotion of Arab rights. It considered the racist Kahanist ideology morally reprehensible. Previously, when Kahane spoke in the Knesset, Likud lawmakers walked out in protest. Therefore, Netanyahu’s actions shocked and appalled many.
Netanyahu’s decision to push for the alliance was likely motivated by a fear that small right-wing parties running separately would not garner enough votes to enter the Knesset. This, in turn, would shrink the right-wing bloc. This was a major concern since former chief of staff Benny Gantz managed this week to put together a new party, Blue and White. The new center-left alliance is expected to outperform the Likud in elections, according to three polls.
If Gantz receives more votes come election day, April 9, Netanyahu will be reliant on other right-wing parties to support a coalition with the Likud, rather than the new center-left creation. Therefore, he has an interest in promoting the inclusion of extreme right-wing parties.
Allies for immunity
Netanyahu may have a second and complementary motivation. The premier is likely to be indicted for corruption charges in the very near future. He has been working to promote a law granting himself immunity from prosecution while he remains in office. The more hardline and right-wing the Knesset is, the easier it will be for Netanyahu to pass a bill keeping himself out of jail.
Criticism has also been leveled at the Jewish Home party. The Jewish Home is heir to the National Religious Party (NPR), which in its previous incarnation was a moderate national-religious list. The NRP was a perennial part of the government in the first few decades of the existence of the State of Israel. They were recently weakened when the two most notable members of the party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, left to form a new party.
The vote within the Jewish Home over the merger was contentious. Secretary-General Nir Orbach stated that he “ideologically opposes” a union with Otzma Yehudit. The next day, Yifat Ehrlich, the top female candidate, left the party in protest. Although the move was supported by the leadership, there is serious concern in the Jewish Home that moderate voters will be alienated by the union. The Israeli left and center parties joined in the criticism. Gantz said that Netanyahu betrayed his principles and had “lost his Zionism.”
The move has also inspired harsh criticism among American Jews, again raising the specter of a schism between Israel and the US Jewish community. “Did Israel just lose Americas Jews?” the liberal American-Jewish paper the Forward asked, arguing that the “normalization of Otzma Yehudit’s racist, theocratic, and authoritarian spirit” should set off alarm bells. The New York-based Union of Reform Judaism and the left-wing T’ruah movement echoed those sentiments.
Criticism also came from less-expected quarters. The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, a staunch defender of Israel in the United States, stated unequivocally on Twitter that “there should be no room for racism & no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy,” adding that it was “troubling they are being legitimized by the union.”
It is hard to disagree with these sentiments. Israeli politics is awash with cynical horse-trading and dirty deals. The proportional representation system and the coalition governments they spawn lend themselves to craven behavior. However, the embrace of unabashed terror-supporting racists by a governing prime minister must qualify as a new low.