Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with an ultranationalist political party has raised significant concerns among US Jews, a top leader in the Jewish American community said Sunday.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the move is “very disturbing” to many American Jews. He said there are also concerns that it will provide new ammunition for Israel’s critics.
Netanyahu last week successfully arranged a merger that folded the Otzma Yehudit or “Jewish Power” party into the larger “Jewish Home” for the April 9 elections.
As part of their deal, Netanyahu gave the merged party a seat on his Likud party’s list of candidates and guaranteed it two cabinet positions if he wins.
Otzma Yehudit members see themselves as the ideological heirs of the banned Kach movement, founded by the late Meir Kahane, which has been outlawed by Israel and the US because of its racist views.
The deal has been widely criticized in Israel, and even strong supporters of Israel in the US have spoken out against it. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), a major pro-Israel advocacy group, and the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, both called Otzma Yehudit “reprehensible.”
“For those who follow this, there’s a lot of concern,” Hoenlein said in an interview.
“What we have to deal with is how it is perceived and understood in the United States,” he said. “And we have to be very careful because it feeds certain tendencies that are very concerning to us.”
Hoenlein, who is visiting Israel, said he has not discussed the matter with Netanyahu and did not want to judge him. “He obviously has some political calculation that drove him to it, but politics can’t dictate everything. You have to take into consideration all of the ramifications and all of the concerns,” he said.
But the “ultimate decision” will be made by the Israeli public, which Hoenlein said rejects extremism.
Netanyahu lashed out at his domestic critics on Saturday, claiming they have sought alliances with extremist Arab parties and accusing them of hypocrisy.
In a statement late Thursday the AJC 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.”
On Friday, AIPAC 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
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.
Netanyahu is expected to speak at AIPAC’s annual conference in late March, as are his main election rivals from the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon.
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.