Despite censure over Kahanists, AIPAC confirms Netanyahu to speak at confab

Prime minister to appear in person at annual policy conference in Washington, pro-Israel lobby says, day after rebuking bid to bring racist Otzma Yehudit faction into Knesset

Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 6, 2018. (Screen capture: AIPAC)
Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 6, 2018. (Screen capture: AIPAC)

The AIPAC pro-Israel lobby confirmed Saturday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would address the group’s annual policy conference next month, hours after issuing an extremely rare rebuke of the Israeli leader.

Netanyahu is a near-yearly fixture at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will take place from March 24 to 26, two weeks before Israelis head to the polls in an election widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership.

AIPAC said in an announcement late Saturday that Netanyahu would “speak live” at the Washington confab, seemingly indicating he would not appear by satellite linkup, as he has sometimes done in the past.

Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, and Moshe Ya’alon have also been invited to speak to the conference, according to reports in the Israeli press Saturday. There was no confirmation, and it was not immediately clear if they will take time out of campaigning to fly to Washington for the conference.

Netanyahu is thought to be trying to arrange a meeting with US President Donald Trump while in Washington, in a bid to display his diplomatic bona fides ahead of the election.

Likud billboard on the side of the busy Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv. The title reads “Netanyahu, in a different league.” (Courtesy)

The confirmation came a day after AIPAC appeared to rebuke Netanyahu for pushing a unity deal between the far-right Jewish Home party and the Otzma Yehudit faction led by former disciples of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. The deal was facilitated by Netanyahu in a bid to strengthen the position of a possible Likud-led coalition after the April 9 vote.

In a tweet, the lobby said it agreed with the American Jewish Committee, which on Thursday had called the views of Otzma Yehudit “reprehensible.”

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 from the AJC said.

It did not mention Jewish Home by name or Netanyahu, who was instrumental in pushing the two parties to unite.

AIPAC said it had “a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”

It was not immediately clear if this policy would now be extended to the Jewish Home party.

Other groups in the US and Israel have also spoken out against Otzma Yehudit. On Saturday, prominent rabbi Binyamin Lau compared voting for the party to voting for Nazis.

Netanyahu hit back at the critics Saturday night.

“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.”

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.

Several Israeli politicians have pointed to AIPAC’s decision to speak out as a sign of what they said was Netanyahu endangering the country for narrow political gains.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the newly formed Blue and White party give a joint a statement to the press in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“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,” tweeted Gantz, who has emerged as the most serious challenger to Netanyahu’s rule.

“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,” said Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

Related op-ed by ToI editor David Horovitz: Netanyahu’s despicable push to bring racists into Israel’s political mainstream

Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties file their joint party slate “Union of Right-Wing Parties” with the Central Elections Committee, February 21, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

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 Michael Ben Ari has called Kahane his rabbi and his teacher. Other leaders include former Kahane aide Baruch 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.

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