WASHINGTON — In a rare comment on internal Israeli politics, AIPAC and the AJC, two mainstream US Jewish organizations, condemned the recent merger deal between the Jewish Home party with the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, a move that was midwifed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The deal 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 the American Jewish Committee 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 the Jewish Home party by name or Netanyahu, who was instrumental in pushing the two parties to unite.
On Friday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby, 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.
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Israeli political analyst Tal Schneider said this was 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, 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 Ayreh 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.