AnalysisLikud's now trying to claim AIPAC has been misled. It hasn't

Netanyahu and the Kahanists: A moral compromise that may ruin his legacy

Few politicians will put moral concerns above political ones unless they fear public shame. The Otzma Yehudit deal may exact a higher cost than the PM realizes

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement after a meeting of his ruling Likud party in Ramat Gan on February 21, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement after a meeting of his ruling Likud party in Ramat Gan on February 21, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

On March 31, just over a week before election day, Benjamin Netanyahu will enter his eleventh consecutive year as prime minister. During his long tenure he has left an indelible mark on Israel’s economy and national security, championing a liberalizing, competition-oriented economic policy and an intensive focus on stymieing Iranian strategic advances throughout the region.

Yet for all his influence and accomplishments, Netanyahu does not feel powerful. Often mocked as paranoid, he has been well-served by his penchant for seeing enemies at every turn. Likud under his leadership has repeatedly jettisoned its most popular politicians when their popularity came to be seen as threatening Netanyahu’s control of the party. He warned ominously (and to many ears, ludicrously) in the run-up to the party’s primary on February 5 that rival Gideon Sa’ar had conspired with President Reuven Rivlin to take the party from him after the election, and openly worked to suppress voting for Sa’ar, whose no. 5 showing on the final slate suggests he was only partly successful. It is easy to mock this conduct, but hard to argue with the results: his opponents have all fallen by the wayside, while Netanyahu remains firmly ensconced at the top.

Politicians are rarely able to set the political agenda. Most of the time, on most issues, most politicians can do little more than respond to the public debate as it flows swiftly past them in the ever-changing news cycle. And Israeli politicians are competing with 119 other MKs — some of them grizzled veterans of the contest with good ties to the most influential journalists — to have their responses noticed. Successful politicians soon learn to ride the waves of public attention, to compromise their dignity and, when the public mood rewards it, their moral principles, or risk withering away into obscurity.

Few Israelis have proven as adept at this game, at sniffing out the direction of the public debate and nudging the public consciousness in politically advantageous directions, as Netanyahu. It is a talent that has allowed the wily tactician to repeatedly snatch political victory from the jaws of seeming defeat, to outmaneuver opponents with greater public prestige and reputation, and to remain at the helm of Israeli national politics for half a generation.

Yet as the years pass and the political maneuvers stack up, the game grows ever more difficult. Netanyahu finds himself having to slog through a thickening mud of past compromises. He once openly backed Palestinian statehood in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech and the 2014 peace talks — facts that now form the heart of the campaigns to his right, in which parties like the New Right warn voters that Netanyahu is a fickle man who will succumb to international pressure for a Palestinian state if he doesn’t face pressure from within his coalition to do otherwise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara and South African philanthropist Morris Kahn watch the launch of the Beresheet spacecraft from the Yehud command center on February 22, 2019. (SpaceIL)

New Right is not the only party campaigning on the widely accepted premise of Netanyahu’s innate lack of guiding principles and consequent susceptibility to pressure. The same argument is being made by the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas, which warns its supporters that a Netanyahu without a robust Shas at his side will surrender key tenets of Israel’s Jewish identity — at least as Shas views them — at the first sign of pressure from overseas donors or domestic secularists.

What’s at stake

Politics is the art of the possible, Otto von Bismarck told an interviewer in 1867, reflecting the view of every successful politician before or since. Only those leaders with a firm grasp of the constraints of their political situation can achieve anything of lasting value in national affairs.

All this is how Netanyahu justifies his efforts over the past two weeks to ensure that Israel’s most extremist and openly racist Jewish political movement is able to win a Knesset seat.

The party in question, Otzma Yehudit, is the spiritual godchild of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset for its incitement to violence and later outlawed 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, the expulsion by force of Arabs from the West Bank, the outlawing of inter-ethnic sexual relations, among other policies.

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

Otzma Yehudit party head Michael Ben Ari has called Kahane his rabbi and teacher. Other party leaders include former Kahane aide Baruch Marzel, who holds a commemoration 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; Bentzi Gopstein, a rabbi who runs Lehava, a group that opposes marriages between Jews and non-Jews and holds protests outside interfaith weddings; and Itamar Ben Gvir, an attorney who defends right-wing activists accused of Jewish terrorism.

The ultra-nationalist party 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.

For Netanyahu, there is more at stake in his bid to help Otzma Yehudit than one or two seats the motley collection of ex-Kahanists and proud bigots might win. Israel’s electoral threshold is set at 3.25 percent, or 3.9 Knesset seats, with Otzma Yehudit polling at 1-2 seats and Jewish Home, the alliance of the old National Religious Party and National Union, polling at 3-5 seats. Even New Right hasn’t polled much above 5-6 seats. Netanyahu has watched the fragmentation of the far-right with dread over the past few weeks, worrying not about the loss of one or two extremists, but about anywhere from four to eight seats falling under the threshold. In Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, that’s an existential potential threat for his hopes to found a stable right-wing coalition. Left alone, Jewish Home could well disappear beneath the 3.9-seat mark. Together, Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit could deliver five, six, perhaps even seven seats to a post-election coalition.

Netanyahu is a politician. He doesn’t ask himself if any particular action violates his moral principles. He only checks whether avoiding some small dent in his personal sense of moral integrity is worth the risk of losing the election.

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

Spoiler alert: For Netanyahu and nearly every other politician who has ever lived, or for anyone who believes their side is broadly correct on the major moral issues, no such momentary moral compromise has ever mattered.

Even so, for Netanyahu to fight publicly for openly racist parties to enter the Knesset is a new level of compromise in his long-running game to remain at the top. And it has begun to reveal in ways even he can’t ignore the limits of such compromises.

The fallout

On Thursday, the blowback began to make itself felt. The American Jewish Committee issued a statement calling the views of Otzma Yehudit “reprehensible.”

It 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.”

In its diplomatic way, AJC highlighted the change the new alliance had revealed in Netanyahu, his new apparent willingness, in the name of political necessity, to temporarily forfeit his longstanding self-image as a champion of liberalism.

“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,” AJC said.

On Friday, that criticism became a meaningful political problem. AIPAC –Netanyahu’s most powerful American ally, the organization that stood at his side in the Iran deal fight with the Obama administration, the greatest and most influential champion in Washington of the US-Israeli alliance, a group seen by many Israelis as Netanyahu’s “home turf” — delivered a public rebuke.

Without naming Netanyahu (AJC didn’t either), AIPAC shared AJC’s statement on its Twitter account, and added that it had “a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party,” referring to Otzma Yehudit.

(It goes without saying that AJC and AIPAC weren’t alone in their criticism, but their statements drove a new discourse in Israel that forced Netanyahu and his Likud party to respond.)

Netanyahu now had a problem. He couldn’t claim that his campaign to get the Kahanist party into the Knesset hadn’t happened, or had been misunderstood. After all, he hadn’t just supported the deal merging Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home’s Knesset lists — he actively engineered it, pushing it against the desires of Jewish Home’s own leaders. He lavished unheard-of political favors on Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, promising the party a slot on Likud’s Knesset list to compensate it for the slot lost to Otzma Yehudit, and giving the party two significant ministerial posts in the next government in exchange for the union.

Nor could an embarrassed Israeli right now hit back at some of Israel’s — and Netanyahu’s — most influential supporters on the world stage.

Likud’s counter-tactic: AIPAC and AJC are being tricked by ‘the left’

It was this new predicament, born from the desperate steps Netanyahu took to extricate himself from the previous predicament, that led to Likud’s new strategy in recent days: quietly explaining to Israelis, but never publicly and openly, that the good folks at AIPAC and AJC had been manipulated by “the left.”

Likud officials have been offering political journalists the scoop that a public relations office employed by the campaign of rival Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party is also employed by AJC, who were the “instigators” of the “AIPAC storm.”

Eli Barak, news chief for the newspaper (and longtime Netanyahu mouthpiece) Israel Hayom, was one of the few to take the bait, posting to Facebook on Sunday this question: “How surprised are you [to find out] that AJC, the organization that started the AIPAC story, is another client of the strategic consulting firm that established and actually runs Gantz’s party?”

Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Barak attached a screenshot from the website of the PR and political consulting firm Ben Horin & Alexandrovitz showing AJC listed as a client.

Likud’s narrative to Israeli reporters now goes something like this: AJC was spun by Gantz’s political managers into complaining about Netanyahu’s backing for a racist party. AIPAC was in turn somehow driven to its own public dissociation by a confused AJC.

Here was yet another innovation in Netanyahu’s history of fleet-footed maneuvers: his campaign quietly badmouthing AIPAC to Israelis.

Likud’s argument seeks to play on the deep ignorance through which many Israelis interpret their American Jewish counterparts.

For various reasons, Israeli political culture has developed a deep distrust of idealism, viewing politicians who cling too tightly to lofty rhetoric with a suspicion born of the traumatic recent collapse of idealistic politics in the Second Intifada and subsequent conflicts and wars. For that reason, and his own long record of compromises, support for Netanyahu is necessarily rooted more in a widespread belief in his essential competence than in any sense that he represents, as iconic Likud founder Menachem Begin once did, an unswerving set of ennobling principles.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at the Washington Convention Center, March 6, 2018, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Indeed, this fact lies at the heart of Gantz’s campaign to unseat him, focusing on Netanyahu the man, his alleged corruption and what Gantz calls his “politics of incitement and division,” rather than his policies. Netanyahu’s campaign takes the opposite tack; it accuses Gantz of wild-eyed leftist idealism offered up under a veneer of centrist pragmatism. Inasmuch as present-day Israeli political campaigns make reference to idealism, it’s more often than not an accusation.

Meanwhile, in the US, especially among American Jews, idealism is all the rage. A moralistic vocabulary drives the political identities on both left and right.

AJC, which spends its days and nights arguing that Israel’s case is essentially a moral one, did not need an Israeli public relations firm to convince it to distance itself from Netanyahu-backed racists.

A great deal is said about AIPAC by its many supporters and critics, but exceedingly few have tried to depict it, as Likud now seeks to do, as amateurish and susceptible to spin.

Inasmuch as the two organizations faced meaningful pressure to speak out, it wasn’t pressure from an Israeli PR firm, but from their own members and donors. If pressure drove the two groups’ statements, then it was the sort of pressure that only highlights the authenticity and depth of their disgust and disquiet.

Most Likud spokespeople are as ignorant about American Jewish political culture as are their fellow Israelis. The powerful role that such moral narratives play in the US is largely invisible to them. Nor do they expect their Israeli audiences to know any better. And so is born an explanation for American Jewish moral revulsion as no more than a successful campaign trick by the opposition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives in the Knesset plenum for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu has weathered the immediate storm and likely preserved Jewish Home from being erased on election day, even at the cost of hand-delivering the racist chairman of Otzma Yehudit, Michael Ben Ari, a Knesset seat.

What Netanyahu may only be starting to realize is that such moral compromises add up. Individuals can compartmentalize their flaws and ethical failings as distinct from their essential selves. History is not so kind. It does not readily recall the accomplishments of the Olmerts or Nixons of the world when these become eclipsed by the sum of their moral compromises.

Netanyahu compromised his way to the top of Israeli politics roughly 25 years ago, and has compromised ferociously to remain there for the better part of the past two decades. Yet here is a man who cares deeply about his legacy. His accomplishments in managing Israel’s economy and strategic position are, as he never fails to point out, numerous and significant. But he is now 69 years old. He may soon find himself regretting favoring the immediate benefits of his moral compromises over the more permanent ones of historical memory.

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