The reaches that Israeli political expediency can be pushed broke new ground this week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to promote a party whose ideological predecessor was banned from the Knesset because of racist incitement.
By cynically pushing for the unification of several right and far-right parties in the hopes that it would add to his chances of forming a government after the elections, Netanyahu brokered the deal between Bayit Yehudi-National Union and the Otzma Yehudit Party on Wednesday.
This has paved the way for the extreme of the extreme right to get into the Knesset. Otzma Yehudit, whose name literally means “Jewish power” is linked to the political philosophy of Rabbi Meir Kahane. A party led by Kahane was banned from the Knesset in 1988 on grounds of racist incitement, and a group linked to it was designated a terrorist organization abroad.
In the past, Otzma had run with Eli Yishai in a party called Yahad that got tens of thousands of votes but didn’t make it into the Knesset. This year, the leaders of Otzma include Baruch Marzel, Benzi Gopstein and Itamar Ben-Gvir. It’s the closest that Israel has to fascism in its midst.
However, none of this seemed to bother Netanyahu, because he is interested in counting votes and forming the next government coalition. If the small right-wing parties on their own don’t pass the threshold to get into the Knesset, it could jeopardize Netanyahu’s plans, especially in light of the agreement announced Thursday morning by Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid parties.
Netanyahu’s fears led him to cancel a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin which he had deemed “very important,” in order to ostensibly supervise the tenuous alliance on the far Right, increase the chances of potential allies being elected and to ensure that no far-right votes would be lost. Netanyahu reportedly called on influential national religious rabbis to pressure the party and made many other personal efforts. The Likud leader went as far as possible to sweeten the deal for Bayit Yehudi, offering them two ministries in his next government.
This is part of the Netanyahu tradition in elections – do everything to win and stay in power.
It conjures up the calls on Election Day 2015 when he claimed that Arabs were “heading to the polling station in droves,” a sop to the far-right and populist voters to stick with Likud during that election. It worked – and Likud trounced Zionist Union.
But at what cost? The cost is to the moral and ethical soul of Israel; not only its image abroad but also its image at home. Racist populism in elections is a black mark on the state. Rhetoric about “the Arabs” tears at the seams of the nation in an already charged environment.
The specter of Otzma becoming part of Israel’s governing coalition is equally revolting, and Netanyahu’s hand in making it a possibility casts a dark stain on Israel’s leadership.
The tragedy of manipulating the far Right and extreme Right to merge has numerous cynical layers. It unites the fringe represented by Otzma with a part of the historic Right that once distanced itself from racism. On the other hand, if Netanyahu wanted to unify with these extreme parties he could have – but he wants others to do it for him so that voters will either migrate to Likud or at least help get one more MK into the Knesset.
The cost of this flirtation with the extreme right is already being paid. Netanyahu is perceived as being willing to accept “Kahanists” into government and of working with them. Condemnations are beginning to fly in from abroad, and the international media is frothing at the bit to write the story of Netanyahu’s alliance with the followers of Kahane. This undermines Likud, the historic National Religious Party and the entire country.
As Lahav Harkov wrote in the Post, Kahanists being part of an Israeli government is more a matter of symbolism than actual concern that Kahane-style polices will be enacted. But sometimes symbolism is just as damaging. This shameless ploy has harmed not only Netanyahu and exposed his naked ambition once again, but has harmed the country’s moral standing. How low does one have to stoop to get elected?