Netanyahu's deflection of his involvement with Otzma - analysis

Again and again, voices across the political spectrum have said Otzma is beyond the pale.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 45th Israel mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, February 18th, 2019 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 45th Israel mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, February 18th, 2019
Ever since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly went to bat for the extremist Otzma Yehudit Party, the uproar has been deafening, blocking out nearly all other political news. But Netanyahu and his allies have been fighting back, saying the Left has courted extremists on the other end of the spectrum.
Netanyahu and Co. are not wrong that there is a level of hypocrisy in the criticism of some of his political opponents. But this is also a handy bit of whataboutism, trying to distract from his questionable behavior by pointing to someone else’s.
In order to get Otzma Yehudit to join the Bayit Yehudi-National Union slate for the next Knesset – now known as the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) – Netanyahu made an unprecedented offer to Bayit Yehudi. Not only did he promise them cabinet seats, which is standard in putting together a coalition, but he offered the party a seat on the Likud list, which Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan now fills.
Again and again, voices across the political spectrum have said Otzma is beyond the pale. A tidbit oft-repeated in the past weekend is revealing on this front: Number 8 on the URP list, Otzma’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, has a photo of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, hanging in his home. And for Netanyahu to align himself with this group in any way is unacceptable and unprecedented, critics say.
The criticism poured in from the Left and the moderate Right, and American Jewish organizations that usually stay above the Israeli political fray, like the AJC and AIPAC, weighed in, though they were careful not to mention Netanyahu by name.
In response, Netanyahu lamented on his Facebook the “hypocrisy and double standards of the Left, who criticize a bloc on the Right with right-wing parties, while the Left acted to bring Islamist extremists into the Knesset to create a bloc.”
“In 1999, [then-prime ministerial candidate Ehud] Barak participated in an elections conference with the inciting Sheikh Raed Salah,” Netanyahu said, referring to the then-Umm al-Fahm mayor, who years later was convicted of funding Hamas, incitement to violence, incitement to terror and obstructing police.
The prime minister said “representatives of Labor and Meretz voted for [Balad founder] Azmi Bishara who spied for Hezbollah, so he can enter the Knesset,” referring to their votes in the Central Election Committee not to ban Balad in 2003. Bishara fled the country in 2006 after police revealed he was spying for Hezbollah, but he did not deny his support for the terrorist organization during the Central Election Committee proceedings years earlier. Labor and Meretz voted in favor of banning a previous incarnation of Otzma, such that their vote to help Balad was not a principled act to defend free political expression.
And Netanyahu’s final argument was that Isaac Herzog acted, when he was leader of Zionist Union, to sign a vote-sharing agreement with the Joint List. This is the one that’s a bit of a stretch. Herzog worked to help Meretz reach a vote-sharing agreement with the Joint List – meaning pooling surplus votes that don’t make up a full seat so that one of the parties would get an additional seat. The efforts did not succeed. Herzog, now the chairman of the Jewish Agency, declined to comment on Netanyahu’s accusations.
“Negating a union with right-wing parties is unacceptable, but to act to bring inciters and spies against Israel is legitimate,” Netanyahu wrote. “That is the height of absurdity.”
ONE CAN argue that Netanyahu has gone further to help Otzma than the examples he gave of the Left helping radical Islamists and Arab nationalist extremists. But certainly the Left’s hands are not clean in this respect.
Balad is a fair comparison to make to Otzma. Both have been repeated targets of Central Elections Committee bans – Otzma under various names – all of which have been overturned by the Supreme Court, though it did uphold a ban of the proto-Otzma, Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, on grounds of racial incitement.
Both Balad and Otzma’s spiritual inspirations and actual founders have made inflammatory and inciting statements calling for the elimination of Jews or Arabs, respectively, from this land, or at least the vast majority of them. And in both cases, the politicians are astute enough to couch those calls in other terminology, whether it’s speaking out against “Zionists” or “enemies of Israel,” to the extent that the Supreme Court ruled there’s no grounds to block them from running.
Both parties’ representatives have openly supported violence against civilians. The notorious MK Haneen Zoabi wrote a column for a Hamas website during Operation Protective Edge, making remarks legitimizing their attacks on Israeli towns. MK Basel Ghattas went to prison for smuggling cell phones to terrorists in Israeli prisons. And there’s the aforementioned Bishara. They’ve expressed support for Hamas and Hezbollah, who have repeatedly waged war on Israel.
Most of Otzma’s leaders have police records relating to incitement and, in the case of Baruch Marzel, assault on Palestinians. Ben-Gvir claims to have been indicted 53 times. They say they only want Arabs who are “enemies” to be thrown out of the Land of Israel – first they’ll be offered money to go, and if they don’t take it, they’d be forced out anyway – but in an interview earlier this month, Marzel said these enemies number in the millions.
Hypocrisy is not a good thing, but talking about whether one is equivalent to the other begs the question: Why should either be acceptable?
When Netanyahu says that the Left helped Balad, he’s not really defending going out of his way to make sure Otzma gets into the Knesset. He’s listing other examples of questionable behavior.
Whataboutism is a debating tactic used when there is no real defense to be made. It’s a deflection, not an explanation or a justification.