Far-right candidate defends extremist Kahane after merger with Jewish Home

Placing 8th on party list in PM-brokered deal, Itamar Ben Gvir says the High Court was wrong to ban his mentor from Knesset; Yifat Erlich resigns from Jewish Home after pact

Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a court hearing in what came to be known as the "Hate Wedding" at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on February 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a court hearing in what came to be known as the "Hate Wedding" at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on February 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A candidate from the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction, which has merged with the Jewish Home party, on Thursday defended the late rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of movements deemed terrorist by Israel and the US after his death, amid mounting criticism of the merger deal brokered at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an interview with Army Radio, Itamar Ben Gvir claimed Israel’s justice system was biased against the right wing. In 1988, the High Court upheld a Knesset Election Committee decision to ban Kahane’s party from running for Knesset on the grounds that it was racist and undemocratic.

“So a court found him guilty? Wow. The same court that affirms Hanin Zoabi and the other Israel haters?” said Ben Gvir. (Zoabi, an outgoing MK from the Joint Arab List, who is an outspoken critic of Israel and its foundational principles, was allowed to serve as an MK by a High Court ruling, after being banned by the Knesset Election Committee. The same committee also barred Baruch Marzel from running in the 2015 elections, and the court rejected that ban too, enabling him to compete. But Marzel — who is now among the leaders of Otzma Yehudit — failed to win a seat.)

“They are the ones who have some soul-searching to do,” Ben Gvir said of the court.

Rabbi Meir Kahane (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Rabbi Meir Kahane (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In a later interview with the Ynet news website, Ben Gvir again defended Kahane, claiming that the late rabbi’s legacy had been distorted.

“They assassinated Rabbi Kahane’s character,” he said. “The same people who call us fascists are willing to sit in a government with Hanin Zoabi.”

Kahane, an Orthodox Jew and outspoken advocate of extreme Jewish nationalism, was the founder of the Jewish Defense League in the US and the Kach movement in Israel, both of which were later outlawed under anti-terrorism laws.

In 1984, Kahane and his Kach party won a single seat in the Knesset, but he was banned from running in the 1988 elections due to his racist views. His Kach movement was banned in Israel under anti-terrorism laws in 1994, and his JDL was listed by the FBI as an extremist group involved in terrorist activities in 2001.

Ben Gvir, in his Army Radio interview, also attacked New Right party leader Naftali Bennett as “pareve” — intimating that Bennett, the education minister, had not pushed Netanyahu firmly enough to the right in the outgoing coalition. When hundreds of rockets are fired at Israel from Gaza, you “have to pound on the table” of the prime minister and demand action, Ben Gvir said. Likewise, when Qatari funds are transferred to Gaza, as has happened in recent months with Israeli government consent.

Ben Gvir vowed in a Channel 12 interview on Wednesday that, with his party in the next coalition, Netanyahu would be moved a little further rightward.

As a teen, Ben Gvir was active in Kahane’s Kach movement and enjoyed brief notoriety from a TV interview in which he proudly held up the emblem that he managed to rip off prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac. “Just as we got to this symbol, we can get to Rabin,” Ben Gvir said to the camera weeks before the premier’s 1995 assassination. The ultra-nationalist went on to obtain a law degree and is known for representing Jewish terror suspects.

Netanyahu brokered the unity pact between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit on Wednesday, in a bid to firm up a right-wing nationalistic bloc ahead of elections in April.

The Jewish Home party votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Recent polls project Likud winning around 30 Knesset seats, while Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, which has cast itself as a successor to the banned Kahanist movement, may not have had enough support to enter the Knesset on their own. Now united, the two small parties would likely cross the electoral threshold and capture several seats.

The agreement prompted accusations that Netanyahu was pandering to extremists. Otzma Yehudit’s leaders are self-declared disciples of Kahane. Otzma Yehudit, in its platform, seeks to extend Israeli sovereignty throughout the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war, and to encourage the removal from that expanded Israel of non-Jews, including Arab citizens of Israel and West Bank Palestinians, deemed disloyal to the Jewish state. Ben Gvir told Army Radio that his party does not seek to oust all Arabs from Israel, only those who he said were not loyal to the Jewish state.

Yifat Erlich of the Jewish Home party speaks at vote on alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, Feb 20, 2019 (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Earlier on Thursday, Jewish Home candidate Yifat Erlich tendered her resignation from the party, citing its merger with Otzma Yehudit.

Erlich, a longtime journalist who joined the party last week as its number three spot, publicly voiced opposition to the merger pushed by Netanyahu.

Throughout the week, Erlich vowed to leave the Jewish Home if the Otzma merger went though, but at the party’s central committee meeting Wednesday night, she had assured her colleagues she would support whatever decision the party took.

In remarks to colleagues on Wednesday night, Erlich dismissed dismal polls that predicted Jewish Home would not pass the threshold. But few Jewish Home members appeared to buy her assessment, and committee members overwhelmingly voted in favor of the merger.

According to the unity pact, the Likud party will reserve the 28th spot on its parliamentary list for a Jewish Home candidate and grant it two cabinet ministries in a future government in exchange for merging with Otzma Yehudit.

Michael Ben Ari received the fifth spot on the joint Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit list, and Ben Gvir is the next Otzma Yehudit lawmaker on the list, in eighth place.

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