Yair Lapid, of the newly formed Blue and White alliance that seeks to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming national elections, lambasted the premier on Saturday following a rare condemnation by two mainstream US Jewish organizations of the recent merger deal between the Jewish Home party with the extremist Otzma Yehudit party. The deal was facilitated by Netanyahu in a bid to strengthen a Likud-led coalition in the April 9 vote.
Numerous opposition Israeli politicians on Saturday castigated Netanyahu for his part in the merger, while Netanyahu’s former defense minister Avigdor Liberman said the US Jewish groups’ critique marked a crisis.
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.”
Yisrael Beytenu leader Liberman said the US Jewish groups’ criticism represented a “real crisis.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (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.
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.
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 Rabbi Meir 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.