America’s largest Israel advocacy organizations issued an extraordinary rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Friday, responding to his move to ally with an extremist party under intense political pressure ahead of the April 9 election.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu supported an agreement between Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit, an offshoot of a racist political movement that has been designated a terrorist organization abroad and banned from Knesset lists since the 1980s.
The move could see Otzma in the Knesset for the first time and, conceivably, in a governing coalition.
The American Jewish Committee vacillated over whether to comment on the unusual development, but ultimately chose to speak out on Friday. “The views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible,” the organization said. “They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”
Looking ahead to the elections, the group continued, “AJC reaffirms our commitment to Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, which we hope will be the ultimate winners in every election cycle.”
Equally unusual was the decision by AIPAC to endorse AJC’s statement in full by retweet.
“We agree with AJC,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee stated. “AIPAC has a long-standing policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”
The Kahanist movement, founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, considers Arabs and other non-Jews in Israel to be enemies of the state, and supports replacing Israel’s democratic government with a theocratic structure.
Several different groups have spawned from Kahane’s racist ideology. Some have outwardly promoted violence, while others have stopped short of publicly proclaiming policies that would get them banned from sitting in the Knesset.
Otzma falls in the latter category. It has taken a similar strategic approach to the stigma of Kahanist history that neo-fascist groups have navigated in the US and Europe, rebranding as an “alt-right” political movement tonally distinct and subtler than its predecessors.
Kahane served in the Knesset for only one term, but his influence has carried long after his tenure and assassination in 1990. He advocated the annexation of Gaza and the West Bank, restoring Jewish “sovereignty” over the Temple Mount, limiting the rights of non-Jews to a subclass – or even forcibly “transferring” them from the country – and violence against his political enemies.
Today, Otzma Yehudit supports several of these policies, including full Israeli control from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and cancellation of the Oslo Accords. Party leaders have shied away from calls to violence and mass deportations, but support the forced expulsion of “Arab extremists,” avoiding specifics.
Kahane was personally accused of plotting various terrorist attacks throughout the 1970s, and his followers continue to face accusations of supporting domestic terrorism and incitement to racism. A massacre of 29 Palestinian Muslims praying at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, perpetrated by followers of Kahane, led Israel, the US, Canada and the EU to designate Kahane’s Kach group as a terrorist entity.
Netanyahu, who will address AIPAC’s policy conference next month, made a point of not responding to criticism from American Jewish leaders. But he did respond to criticism from the Blue and White Party and other political opponents, who he accused of “a hypocritical double-standard.”
“It is absurd that they rule out encouraging mergers on the Right but consider it legitimate to ensure that inciters and spies against Israel enter the Knesset,” Netanyahu said.
He was referring to votes by Labor and Meretz in the Central Elections Committee to permit then-Balad leader Azmi Bishara to run for Knesset. He later became the subject of a criminal investigation for acts of alleged treason and espionage, and was suspected of supplying information to Hezbollah on strategic areas in Israel to attack with rockets. Bishara was subsequently stripped of his Knesset immunity, and fled to Qatar.
Netanyahu also noted that in 1999, then-candidate for prime minister Ehud Barak participated in the same rally as Northern Islamic Movement head Sheikh Raed Salah, who was later convicted of incitement.
Blue and White’s prime ministerial candidate Benny Gantz said, “The rare statement issued by AIPAC, an organization which seldom deals with internal Israeli politics, proves that Netanyahu has yet again crossed an ethical boundary in an attempt to hold on to his seat while severely damaging the Israeli spirit, Jewish morals, and our important relationship with US Jewry.”
Gantz’s partner in Blue and White, Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter that “Netanyahu caused huge damage to Israel’s image in the world and is wiling to endanger our democracy.” He added that “when our closest friends feel they must condemn us, it is clear to everyone that a redline has been crossed.”
Labor faction chairman Itzik Shmuli thanked AIPAC and AJC for taking a stand against Otzma Yehudi and “telling Netanyahu that he cannot get away with everything that helps his battle for political and legal survival, but harms our national interests.”
Otzma Yehudi responded that AIPAC members should move to Israel and “come home before interfering in the election.”
“They don’t live here, and they criticize us, as if they are on Mount Olympus,” Otzma Yehudit Knesset candidate Michael Ben-Ari told KAN, adding that there was no reason for the Jewish organizations to criticize Netanyahu, because their running with Bayit Yehudi was merely technical, and after the election, they will split into a separate faction.
“I won’t be part of Netanyahu’s coalition if he continues his current path,” Ben-Ari said.
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