In DC, Herzog reportedly sought to calm US fears over rise of Israeli far-right

Several Biden officials raise concern amid Religious Zionism’s rise in polls; Israeli president urges them to wait until coalition is formed before drawing conclusions

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, left, meets with Israel's President Isaac Herzog in Washington, October 25, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, left, meets with Israel's President Isaac Herzog in Washington, October 25, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

President Isaac Herzog reportedly sought to calm US concerns regarding the rise of the Israeli far-right during several of his meetings with senior Biden administration officials in Washington last week.

Both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan quizzed Herzog on what they should expect in Tuesday’s Knesset election, in which the extremist Religious Zionism party is expected to make significant gains, according to a Saturday Axios report.

The rapid rise of the party’s No. 2 Itamar Ben Gvir along with Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich has been cause for concern among several of Israel’s allies. At least two senior Democratic lawmakers have raised the issue, as did UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, with Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said the far-right party will be an integral part of his coalition if he forms the next government.

Surveys indicate that Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties is just shy of securing a 61-seat majority in the Knesset. Religious Zionism currently has seven seats in the Knesset, but polls predict the faction winning 12-14 seats on Tuesday. Both Smotrich and Ben Gvir have a long history of disparaging remarks about Arabs, LGBT individuals and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

While Blinken and Sullivan didn’t name specific lawmakers in their conversations with Herzog, it was clear that they were referring to the two Religious Zionism leaders, a US official told Axios, adding that they “expressed our anxiety to Herzog.”

The Biden officials clarified that they would work with whatever government is put in place in Israel while acknowledging that they might have a problem dealing with specific ministers, according to the report.

MKs Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally of their Religious Zionism party in the southern city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)

In turn, Herzog explained the various scenarios that might unfold on Tuesday and urged the Biden officials to avoid drawing conclusions based on exit polls and instead wait until a government is formed in the subsequent weeks.

“Let the democratic process take its course,” Herzog told the Biden officials, Axios reported.

He then appeared to acknowledge the possibility of Religious Zionism entering the government along with the problematic repercussions. “Every country has problems in its political system. You experience this here in the US too,” Axios quotes him as having said.

Both sides declined to comment on the record.

Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in the 1980s in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has been convicted on terror charges, though he insists he has become more moderate in recent years and does not hold the same beliefs as the Kach founder.

Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading: “Expel the Arab enemy.”

Until it began to harm him politically, he kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein on a wall of his Hebron home. Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Recently, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 10, 2020. (Courtesy)

Smotrich is the chairman of Religious Zionism and was seen as one of Israel’s most extremist lawmakers before Ben Gvir entered politics last year.

Smotrich first made national headlines for organizing a “Beast Parade” to protest the gay pride march in Jerusalem in 2006. More than a decade later, he called himself a “proud homophobe” before eventually toning down and even apologizing for some of his remarks on the matter.

Smotrich also said it was “natural” for his wife not to want to share a room in a maternity ward with an Arab woman.

Last year, he lamented that Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion didn’t “finish the job” and kick all Arabs out of the country when it was founded.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, center, visits Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv on Oct. 21, 2022. (AP/Oded Balilty)

“You’re here by mistake,” he shouted at Arab MKs in the Knesset plenum.

He has also called Judaism’s Reform Movement — the largest in the US — a “fake religion.”

More recently, he unveiled a legal initiative he hopes to initiate in a future government that would scrap the charges of fraud and breach of trust from Israel’s legal code. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in all three of the criminal cases in which he is on trial.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report

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