US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demurred Sunday when asked about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brokering of a political alliance that includes a Jewish extremist party, saying it was an Israeli electoral matter that the United States would not get involved in.
Netanyahu’s push to merge Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) with the national-religious Jewish Home party ahead of April’s Knesset elections has drawn widespread rebuke from Israeli opposition figures and US Jewish groups. Otzma Yehudit includes disciples of the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish supremacist Kach party was banned under Israeli law for incitement to racism and later declared a terrorist group.
“We’re not about to… interfere in an election of a democracy. Election campaigns are tough. We’ll allow the Israeli people to sort this out,” Pompeo told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“I’m confident that when the election is over, the United States will continue to have a strong, important, very, very deep relationship with Israel that protects the American people and benefits Israel as well,” he added.
Netanyahu argues that it was necessary to fold Otzma Yehudit into Jewish Home to prevent right-wing votes from being “wasted” if the two parties ran alone and failed to clear the 3.25 percent threshold for Knesset representation in the April 9 general elections, a scenario that would likely make it more difficult for him to form another ruling coalition.
The merger has been condemned by a number of prominent Jewish journalists in the US, as well as two leading Jewish organizations.
In a statement late Thursday, the American Jewish Committee said it felt “compelled to speak out” and that the “views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”
On Friday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby, retweeted the AJC statement and declared it would not meet with members of Otzma Yehudit. It was not immediately clear if that policy would also be extended to the Jewish Home party.
“We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party,” it said, but did not mention by name the Jewish Home party or Netanyahu, who was instrumental in pushing the two parties to unite.
Despite the AIPAC statement, the group confirmed that Netanyahu is still set to address the group’s annual policy conference next month.
On Saturday, prominent Israeli Modern Orthodox rabbi Binyamin Lau compared voting for the party to voting for Nazis.
Netanyahu hit back at the critics Saturday night.
“What hypocrisy and double standards by the left,” he wrote on Facebook, in a post that did not name AIPAC. “They’re condemning [the formation of] a right-wing majority bloc with right-wing parties, while the left acted to bring extreme Islamists into the Knesset to create a majority bloc.”
Otzma Yehudit is the spiritual godchild of 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.
Otzma Yehudit includes a number of self-declared Kahanists, among them Michael Ben Ari, who was denied a US visa in 2012 over his ties to Kach; Baruch Marzel, who served as Kahane’s secretary in the Knesset; Bentzi Gopstein, a former student of the extremist rabbi and anti-miscegenation activist who is facing charges of incitement to violence, racism and terrorism; and Itamar Ben Gvir, who as a teen was active in Kach and is now largely known for representing Jewish terror suspects.
Gopstein is an ex-Kahane student and Kach activist whose Lehava movement works to prevent relationships — romantic and otherwise — between Jews and Arabs.
Under the Otzma Yehudit platform, Israel’s sovereign borders would extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and “enemies of Israel” within those expanded borders would be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world.