Ex-AIPAC official: By backing extremists, Netanyahu ‘overstepped the line’

PM’s actions have long been ‘detrimental to AIPAC’s entire concept of bipartisan politics,’ charges Jerusalem-based David Kreizelman; other AIPAC alum says group meant no rebuke

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2014. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2014. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

AIPAC’s statement chiding the extremist Otzma Yehudit party can be seen as a rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for continuously damaging bipartisan American support for Israel, a former Jerusalem-based official of the pro-Israel lobby said Sunday.

“This has been growing for a long time, because Netanyahu over the past years has really been detrimental to AIPAC’s entire concept of bipartisan politics in the United States. He has been hurting that for a long time,” David Kreizelman, a former AIPAC foreign policy associate, told The Times of Israel.

“This has created a situation where there’s a direct conflict with anything the community has to say about anti-Semitism and racism in Israel,” Kreizelman said. “He sort of overstepped the line now. It’s a serious problem.”

On Saturday, AIPAC appeared to chide Netanyahu for pushing a unity deal between the right-wing Jewish Home party and the Otzma Yehudit faction led by former disciples of the 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.

David Kreizelman (Facebook)

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, and gave the merged party a seat on his Likud party’s list of candidates and guaranteed it two cabinet positions if he wins.

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

The head of AIPAC’s Israel office, Cameron Brown, on Sunday declined to comment for this story.

Kreizelman, who worked for decades at AIPAC’s Jerusalem branch, said that occasionally the lobby and the Israeli government didn’t see eye to eye, but that AIPAC “very rarely” comments on domestic Israeli politics. That is why the group’s tweet on Saturday was such a big deal, he said.

“It’s pretty major. It’s a very strong statement,” he said.

Kreizelman’s assessment of AIPAC’s tweet appears to confirm criticism by some of Netanyahu’s political rivals, who noted that the organization rarely comments on Israeli politics, and accused the prime minister of having caused damage to the US-Israel relationship.

“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 Blue and White party head Benny 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.

But Lenny Ben-David, a Jerusalemite who worked for AIPAC for many years, said the group’s tweet was not intended as a criticism of Netanyahu.

“It’s not a rebuke of the prime minister,” he said. While it is true that AIPAC seldom comments on Israeli politics, Saturday’s brief statement should be understood as a denunciation of Otzma Yehudit and not of Netanyahu, Ben-David said.

“It is certainly not AIPAC’s standard operation, because they keep a low profile. But it was necessary, because they wanted to tell the left: We’re not supporting the extreme right-wing in Israel. AIPAC’s response was against the Kahanists,” he said. “They wouldn’t have done it if Otzma Yehudit hadn’t made inroads.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center March 6, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Despite the ostensible displeasure with Netanyahu over boosting the neo-Kahanist party, AIPAC did over the weekend confirm that the prime minister will address the group’s annual Policy Conference next month in Washington. At the conference, he is expected to be received with great applause, as has been the case in previous appearances.

“Most people are being celebrated as heroes when they come to AIPAC,” Kreizelman said. “There are many people in AIPAC that will back him no matter what; not the majority, but at least a strong enough group that it will look like he is being well accepted.”

AIPAC organizers make great efforts to ask conference-goers to treat all speakers with respect, even those with whose views they may disagree, he added.

Gantz has been invited to address the AIPAC Policy Conference as well, though it is unclear whether he would appear on the main stage or speak at a side event to a smaller audience.

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