Netanyahu’s despicable push to bring racists into Israel’s political mainstream

The PM has persuaded the religious-Zionist Jewish Home to partner with the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit. It makes cynical political sense for his interests, but what of Israel’s?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Baruch Marzel, right, listens as Michael Ben Ari (left) speaks during a ceremony honoring the late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in a Jerusalem hall, October 26 2010. (Yossi Zamir / Flash 90)
Baruch Marzel, right, listens as Michael Ben Ari (left) speaks during a ceremony honoring the late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in a Jerusalem hall, October 26 2010. (Yossi Zamir / Flash 90)

The Jewish Home party, the current iteration of what used to be Israel’s National Religious Party, on Wednesday night voted in favor of a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit, a racist successor to the banned Kach party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Kahane, who won a seat in the Knesset 35 years ago on a platform of revoking citizenship from Arab Israelis and a pledge to “transfer” out of the country those who would not accept this status, and who sought to outlaw sex and marriage between Jews and non-Jews, was banned as a racist from seeking re-election four years later.

The platform of his disciples in Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) — “Kach” and a subsequent iteration, “Kahane Chai,” are banned in Israel (and the US) as terrorist organizations — envisages Israel not as a Jewish state and a democracy, but rather what it calls a “Jewish democracy”: The Land of Israel’s sovereign borders will extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River — that is, throughout the territory that was captured by Israel in the 1967 war. “Enemies of Israel” anywhere within those expanded borders — West Bank Palestinians, Arab Israeli citizens, et al — will be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world. Jewish sovereignty will be “restored” to the Temple Mount — where Israel already claims sovereignty, but where Muslim authorities maintain religious control, Muslims pray, and Jews do not.

Interviewed on Army Radio on Wednesday afternoon, the party’s leader, former MK Michael Ben Ari, was asked to disavow Kahane’s racist ideology. He ridiculed the notion. Kahane, he said, was his teacher, his rabbi.

Meir Kahane addresses a gathering at the Silver Springs Jewish Center in Maryland, October 27, 1988 (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Also at the party helm is lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir, who first made headlines in Israel in 1995 when he held up the stolen Cadillac symbol from prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car and crowed to a TV camera, “Just as we got to this symbol, we can get to Rabin.”

So too is Baruch Marzel, a former top aide to Kahane known for organizing parties in celebration of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.

And Benzi Gopstein, an ex-Kahane student and Kach activist whose Lehava movement works to prevent relationships — romantic and otherwise — between Jews and Arabs.

Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein and right-wing activists protest during the annual Gay Pride parade at a main street in Jerusalem on July 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Home’s leadership had been reluctant to join forces with the Kahanists, but, apparently for those at its helm, you gotta do what you gotta do — even when what you gotta do takes you beyond the pale. The original NRP was the emphatically mainstream representative of Israel’s religious Zionists, the Orthodox ally of Israel’s secular Zionist pioneers. Broadly centrist in political orientation, it gradually moved to the right in the decades after the 1967 war, dwindled away politically, and was subsumed into Jewish Home (itself a merger of various factions) a decade ago. When leader Naftali Bennett and his ministerial colleague Ayelet Shaked abandoned Jewish Home in late December and set up their New Right party, seeking to make their eventual way to the national leadership and feeling encumbered by the settler-rabbi imprint, Jewish Home was on the brink of disappearing altogether.

Betzalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz are seen after agreeing to form a joint Jewish Home-National Union Knesset slate, February 14, 2019. (Courtesy)

Though polling barely around the 3.25% Knesset threshold, its new leader, ex-IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz (who last week agreed to an alliance with the National Union faction) was still resisting pressure to merge with Otzma Yehudit… until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spearheaded a personal campaign of phone calls, meetings, promises of ministerial posts, and — at a Wednesday afternoon meeting with Peretz — all manner of other complex political deals, to change his mind. Netanyahu had been scheduled to fly to a vital meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday; it was postponed so that he could tend to this evidently more crucial imperative.

That a rival party to Netanyahu’s Likud would bow to his will, rather than stick to its own principles, indicates that, for the Jewish Home, antipathy to the center-left outweighs abhorrence of racism. The “technical” partnership was announced on Wednesday morning, and, backed by Peretz, was put to Jewish Home members and approved Wednesday night. By Thursday, all parties must submit their final slates for the April 9 Knesset elections.

Confronting Netanyahu in the wrong places

In a speech presenting his own Knesset slate on Tuesday evening, Benny Gantz, the only realistic anyone-but-Netanyahu hope, issued a spectacularly personal attack on the prime minister.

Benny Gantz, head of the Israel Resilience party, speaks at a conference presenting the party’s list of candidates for coming Knesset elections at an event held in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It was not spectacular by the standards of this election — Netanyahu and his supporters have been castigating Gantz as a weak leftist incapable of running the country; the prime minister on Monday accused Gantz of drawing up plans for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank while head of the army during 2013-2014 peace talks, when it was Netanyahu himself who reportedly gave Gantz the orders to do so; an anonymous smear campaign against Gantz promoted on social media was traced back to Likud.

But it was out of character for Gantz, who was soft-spoken when in uniform, and who had promised to take the high road in his debut political speech last month.

Gantz intimated that Netanyahu was less than fully Israeli — given that he spent years in school and working in the US, during which he changed his name. In a lower blow, Gantz lambasted the prime minister for having also spent years perfecting his English at glamorous American cocktail parties — a charge that missed its mark, since Netanyahu was working as an Israeli diplomat at the time. And in the lowest blow of all, Gantz compared that swanky US lifestyle enjoyed by Netanyahu with his own decades of military service, training generations of commanders and troops, sleeping rough in the muddy trenches on innumerable freezing winter nights, risking his life behind enemy lines. Netanyahu hit back, saying that this critique was particularly outrageous given that he had risked his own life many times as a soldier and officer in Israel’s most elite special forces unit (Sayeret Matkal).

On election day in 2015, dishonorably and inaccurately, Netanyahu sought to get out the Likud vote by claiming that Israel’s Arab citizens were streaming in droves to the polling stations. Now, ahead of the 2019 poll, he has worked energetically — and successfully — to bring into the mainstream a group of racists who would deny Israel’s Arab citizens the right to vote at all

Where Gantz’s vituperative fire was more damaging was when he charged that Netanyahu has “ruled the country through incitement, deception and fear,” stirring up internal divisions, and when he lambasted the prime minister for seeking to weaken the pillars of Israeli democracy as he battles against indictment in the three graft investigations against him.

Said Gantz, referring to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who must decide on whether to press charges against the prime minister who appointed him: “A legal adviser appointed by the ruler became a traitor and a leftist when he did not do what the ruler expected him to do.” Said Gantz on ex-police chief Roni Alsheich, another Netanyahu appointee, who oversaw the investigations: “The police commissioner appointed by the ruler was called a leftist and traitor because he dared to be loyal to the laws of the state and not to the demands of the ruler.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 5, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Gantz said nothing, however, of the then-looming Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit merger that Netanyahu was so energetically and appallingly pushing. On election day itself in 2015, dishonorably and inaccurately, Netanyahu sought to get out the Likud vote by claiming that Israel’s Arab citizens were streaming in droves to the polling stations. Now, ahead of the 2019 poll, he has worked energetically — and successfully — to bring into the mainstream a group of racists who would deny Israel’s Arab citizens the right to vote at all.

It is not Netanyahu the diplomat or the soldier that Gantz should be campaigning against. It is not Netanyahu the leader who has tried to keep Israel safe from external threat. It is the Netanyahu harming Israel from within.

It makes perfect cynical political sense for Netanyahu to encourage the return of Kahanists to the Knesset. A merged Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit ticket could win at least four seats, surveys indicated before the deal was approved, while separately, Otzma Yehudit would not have cleared the electoral threshold, Jewish Home also might have failed, and all the votes they got would have gone to waste. Ben Ari is set for fifth place on the merged list, and Ben Gvir for eighth.

Otzma Yehudit leaders (from L-R) Michael Ben Ari, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein in a crowdfunding campaign video on November 5, 2018. (Screen capture/Otzma Yehudit)

In terms of Israel’s values, Israel’s character, Israel’s essence, by contrast, the prime minister’s tactic is reprehensible.

Seen through to its likely conclusion, the merger of the two parties will find their representatives, the Kahanists potentially included, taking their seats in Netanyahu’s next governing coalition. At which point Israel — which boycotts far-right parliamentary parties in countries such as Austria, Germany and France, and which castigates the dangerous rise of racist politicians overseas — will itself have sunk, at Netanyahu’s insistent, self-serving instigation, to the very level it warns against elsewhere.

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