After facing heavy criticism in recent days for brokering a political deal that could see the extremist Otzma Yehudit party enter the Knesset, and following a rare rebuke from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday evening fired back at critics.
“What hypocrisy and double standards by the left,” he wrote on Facebook, in a post that did not mention AIPAC. “They’re condemning [the formation of] a right-wing majority bloc with right-wing parties, while the left acted to bring extreme Islamists into the Knesset to create a majority bloc.”
He then went on to list several instances of alleged support by left-wing politicians for radical Arab legislators and leaders.
“In 1999 [Ehud] Barak took part in a campaign rally with the inciting Sheik Raed Salah,” he said, referring to the Islamist cleric who has repeatedly been arrested for fomenting violence. (The Haaretz newspaper noted that Barak took a tour in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm during the campaign, which Salah, then the mayor, attended.)
“Representatives of Labor and Meretz voted for Azmi Bishara, who spied for Hezbollah, to enter the Knesset, and [Isaac] Herzog sought a surplus vote agreement with the Joint List and said the Arab MKs were legitimate in the government,” Netanyahu also wrote.
Bishara first entered the Knesset in 1996 as part of an alliance between Hadash and his Balad party. He was accused of espionage after fleeing the country in 2007. Haaretz noted that Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich has said she voted for Hadash in the 1996 election. Netanyahu may have been referring to her statements.
“A union with right-wing parties is wrong, but working to bring in inciters and those who spy against Israel is legitimate,” he asked bitterly, calling the notion “the height of absurdity.”
Meanwhile, the head of the newly formed Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, who has emerged as Netanyahu’s most serious rival in the elections, said Saturday that Netanyahu was “causing serious harm” to Israel’s image and its ties to US Jews.
“The rare reaction by AIPAC, an organization that does not usually touch on internal Israeli politics, proves that Benjamin Netanyahu has once again crossed ethical red lines just to keep his seat, while causing serious harm to Israel’s image, Jewish morality and our important relationship with American Jewry,” Gantz tweeted.
Otzma Yehudit, meanwhile claimed that AIPAC “want to see the rise of the Israeli left to power and will be happy with a government that hands over territories and gives weapons to the enemy.”
The party, whose leaders are self-styled disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, said in a statement that the US lobby group should not “interfere in the elections” as it was not Israeli.
“When they come here they can be partners in the fateful and existential decisions of the nation that sits in Zion, and we will be happy to have them make decisions along with the citizens of Israel,” the party said.
It also condemned the “hypocrisy” of AIPAC. “We’ve never heard AIPAC so strongly condemn Hanin Zoabi and Ahmad Tibi’s running for the the Knesset,” it said, referring to two Arab MKs, “nor have they ever come out against elements on the Israeli left like Ofer Cassif, who want to abolish the Jewish state.”
Cassif is a Jewish member of the mostly Arab Hadash party.
Earlier Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman spoke out against Otzma Yehudit and warned of the significance of the condemnation issued by AIPAC.
“No one should have any doubts, this is the most important Jewish organization in the world, with significant repercussions, enough said. When AIPAC speaks in such a manner, it is a real crisis,” Liberman said.
Liberman added that Otzma Yehudit was “on the fringe of Israeli politics, not just diplomatically.
“They’re more Orthodox then Litzman, Gafni and Deri together,” he said, referring to the leaders of the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties.
AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) made separate statements this week on the merger deal between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, which could see the entrance of at least one lawmaker from the party of Meir Kahane’s disciples into the 21st Knesset after the April elections. The deal was facilitated by Netanyahu in a bid to strengthen a Likud-led coalition in the April 9 vote.
In a statement late Thursday, AJC said the “views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”
AJC said that while it did not “normally comment on political parties and candidates during an election” after the union it felt “compelled to speak out.”
“Historically, the views of extremist parties, reflecting the extreme left or the extreme right, have been firmly rejected by mainstream parties, even if the electoral process of Israel’s robust democracy has enabled their presence, however small, in the Knesset,” the carefully worded statement said.
It did not mention Jewish Home by name or Netanyahu, who was instrumental in pushing the two parties to unite.
On Friday, the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC retweeted the AJC statement.
“We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party,” it said.
We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party. https://t.co/WBkCScx4U3
— AIPAC (@AIPAC) February 22, 2019
It was not immediately clear if this policy would now be extended to the Jewish Home party.
Netanyahu is expected to speak at AIPAC’s annual conference in late March.
The head of the Anti-Defamation League also criticized the merger on Wednesday. “There should be no room for racism & no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy. ADL previously has spoken out on hate-filled rhetoric of leaders of the Otzma Yehudit Party. It is troubling that they are being legitimized by this union,” tweeted its leader Jonathan Greenblatt.
Yair Lapid, of the newly formed Blue and White alliance that seeks to defeat Netanyahu in the upcoming national elections, lambasted the premier on Saturday.
Numerous opposition Israeli politicians on Saturday castigated Netanyahu for his part in the merger.
Lapid on Saturday took to Twitter to blast the prime minister, accusing him of “putting politics before [the State of] Israel.”
“When even our good friends feel the need to condemn [the merger], then it needs to be clear that a red line has been crossed,” wrote Lapid, chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party, who announced the alliance with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience this past week. Lapid is number two on the Blue and White list.
“Netanyahu has caused great harm to Israel’s image in the world and is prepared to endanger our democracy,” Lapid added.
Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich, head of the opposition, also criticized Netanyahu, saying at a cultural event in Raanana on Saturday that “history will remember the moment a prime minister of Israel, whose citizens include many Holocaust survivors or children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, gives legitimacy…to a Kahanist, racist party… whose leaders symbolize extremism and racism.”
Labor leader Avi Gabbay wrote on Twitter Saturday that his party would do “everything possible to prevent this racist party from serving in the next government.”
Related op-ed by ToI editor David Horovitz: Netanyahu’s despicable push to bring racists into Israel’s political mainstream
The prime minister warned this week that if the Blue and White alliance came to power, Israel’s very existence would quickly be threatened by the independent Palestinian state he claimed they plan to establish.
Speaking on Thursday minutes after Gantz and Lapid held their first public gathering since merging their respective parties, Netanyahu declared that the choice for the electorate was now “clearer than ever.”
Either Israel could be led by a “weak, new left-wing party,” supported by Arab Knesset members who he said seek to destroy Israel, or the electorate could choose “a strong, right-wing government under my leadership.”
But Netanyahu’s involvement in the controversial Otzma Yehudit-Jewish Home merger may cost him.
Israeli political analyst Tal Schneider said the AIPAC and AJC responses amounted to a massive rebuke for Netanyahu. “In terms of the relationship between the prime minister and Jewish organizations in the Diaspora, this is a sonic boom,” she wrote.
The Jewish Home central committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday evening to approve a merger with Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) — which is led by former National Union MK Michael Ben Ari and far-right activists Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein.
Otzma Yehudit is the spiritual godchild of Kahane’s Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset under a Basic Law outlawing incitement to violence and later exiled entirely in Israel. Kahane was the American immigrant founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, who before his assassination in 1990 promoted the immediate annexation of disputed territories and the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank.
Party head Ben Ari has called Kahane his rabbi and his teacher. Other leaders include former Kahane aide Marzel, a resident of Hebron who holds a party every year at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the American-born doctor who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs; Gopstein, a rabbi who runs Lehava, a group that opposes marriages between Jews and non-Jews; and Ben Gvir, an attorney who defends right-wing activists accused of Jewish terrorism.
The move did draw its fair share of opponents from within the religious party, but that opposition dwindled in the final hours before the vote, in part because of sweeteners for the deal promised by Netanyahu.
Following the Wednesday morning decision by the Otzma Yehudit leadership to accept the offer put forth by Jewish Home heads Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich — which saw the far-right faction receive the fifth and eighth spots on the united list — Jewish Home leaders held marathon talks with Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office. In the seven-hour meeting, the premier did his best to sweeten the deal, which he worked intensively over the past several weeks to bring about.
Netanyahu has publicly argued that a failure of the smaller right-wing parties to unite could lead to many of them not crossing the electoral threshold, making way for the rise of an alternative government, which he brands a coalition of the left.
In that meeting, Netanyahu pledged to give two ministerial posts to the Jewish Home party were its members to agree to merge with Otzma Yehudit. A Jewish Home source told The Times of Israel that the education and housing portfolio were offered by the premier. In addition, the prime minister pledged to give the 28th spot on the Likud list — which is reserved for a candidate of Netanyahu’s choosing — to a Jewish Home MK.
Established in 2012 as Otzma Leyisrael by Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad, many of the views espoused by the party are akin to those backed by some of the Knesset’s most hardline MKs — annexation of the entire West Bank and unrestricted settlement construction; opposition to a Palestinian state and punitive military operations in response to terror attacks; further emphasis on Israel’s Jewish character in the education, social, and judicial systems.
However, the ultra-nationalist party adds to those positions a host of more overtly racist ones. It supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty and accept sub-equal status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank — the biblical Judea and Samaria. It also calls for a termination of the fragile status quo on the Temple Mount, which Israel has maintained since capturing an annexing the area in the 1967 war, under which Muslims can pray at the disputed holy site and Jews cannot.
- Jewish Times
- Otzma Yehudit
- AIPAC American Israel Public Affairs Committee
- AJC American Jewish Committee
- Jewish Home party
- Meir Kahane
- Bentzi Gopstein
- Bezalel Smotrich
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Yair Lapid
- Blue and White party
- Benny Gantz
- Shelly Yachimovich
- Raed Salah
- Azmi Bishara
- ADL Anti-Defamation League
- 2019-2020 Israeli elections