Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, recently warned opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu that including extreme-right lawmakers in a potential future government would harm US-Israel relations, according to a report Saturday.
According to the Axios report, Menendez made the comments during a visit to Israel last month. Citing two unnamed American sources familiar with the meeting, the report said Menendez raised his concerns over Netanyahu’s cooperation with far-right parties, specifically mentioning Otzma Yehudit and its leader Itamar Ben Gvir.
Former prime minister Netanyahu recently brokered a deal to get Otzma Yehudit and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party to run together in a bid to improve his chances of returning to power.
Ben Gvir has reportedly been offered a senior ministerial position if a Netanyahu-led government is established.
Netanyahu said ahead of previous elections that he did not believe the extremist Ben Gvir was fit to be a minister. However, without Ben Gvir’s support, Netanyahu likely has little to no chance of leading the next government.
The report said Menendez told Netanyahu he had “serious concerns” about including “extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben Gvir” in a future government, citing the unnamed US sources.
“The senator told Netanyahu he needed to realize the composition of such a coalition could seriously erode bipartisan support in Washington, which has been a pillar of the bilateral relationship between the US and Israel,” one of the sources cited by Axios said.
One of the sources said Netanyahu was “pissed off” by Menendez’s comments.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the report, the news site said, and US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration does not interfere in Israel’s internal politics.
Ben Gvir, meanwhile, responded by blaming Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who also serves as foreign minister, for “destroying” Israel’s foreign relations, accusing him of “dragging” Menendez into interfering in the Israeli election process.
Ben Gvir is an admirer of late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated transferring Israel’s Arabs out of the country. He was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading “Expel the Arab enemy.”
In recent public remarks, he has sought to downplay his extremist views, saying he isn’t in favor of expelling all Arabs — only terrorists or those he deems disloyal. However, analysts have pointed out that he regularly refers to many Arab public figures with no history of terror-related activities, including elected lawmakers and party leaders, as “terrorists.”
Until it began to harm him politically, Ben Gvir also kept on a wall of his Hebron home a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. During a recent visit to a high school in the central city of Ramat Gan, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”
Ben Gvir frequently stirs up friction between Jewish and Arab Israelis and was reportedly accused by the national police chief of abetting the worst inter-communal violence in recent Israeli history in May of last year.
He has additionally allied with some of Israel’s most extremist Jewish movements and activists — including Lehava, a Jewish supremacist anti-miscegenation group, and the virulently homophobic Noam.