Relax, Otzma hasn’t ruined Israel-U.S. ties

While the deal Netanyahu brokered is terrible and even revolting, it is part of the way politics are played, and that is how it needs to be viewed.

Netanyahu faces backlash at home and abroad for far-right alliance, February 24, 2019 (Reuters)
Let’s state this right at the top: Otzma Yehudit is a reprehensible political party with racist roots.
While it may have the right to run in Israel’s elections – that is decided by the High Court of Justice – that doesn’t mean it is legitimate. Otzma, the descendant of the outlawed Kach Party, holds views that are beyond the pale, and that is where they should remain. These views include evicting Arabs from parts of Israel, taking away their citizenship, attacking homosexuals, calling for the killing of innocent Gazans and more.
With that said, everyone needs to relax a bit. There is no crisis between Israel and the United States because of the merger Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orchestrated between Bayit Yehudi and Otzma, and it doesn’t mean that Israel-US ties are now at risk of falling apart.
Practically speaking, let us also remember that according to the deal, Otzma gets two spots on the new right-wing merged party – No. 5 and No. 8. According to the latest polls, it has a chance of getting in one representative in the fifth spot, but even that is not for sure. If the party gets five spots, it means that Michael Ben-Ari will be in the Knesset, or more accurately, return to the Knesset since he already served as an MK between 2009 and 2013.
So while the deal Netanyahu brokered is terrible and even revolting, it is part of the way politics are played, and that is how it needs to be viewed. Netanyahu accurately predicted that Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz would merge their parties, meaning that he will need every vote for the Right to stay in power. That is what he is looking at – the short-term view of how to win another term as prime minister.
If he wins, he will likely denounce Otzma just as he flipped a 180 after the last election with regard to a Palestinian state – during the campaign he said there would never be a Palestinian state, and after he won he changed his tone.
This is all important to keep in mind when reading the news stories about AIPAC’s supposed condemnation of Netanyahu on Friday. First, AIPAC did not mention Netanyahu by name. It also did not issue an official press release, and did not send a statement to the press. What it did do was retweet a tweet by the American Jewish Committee, which had put out a statement calling Otzma “reprehensible” for holding views that “do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”
In its own tweet, AIPAC wrote the following: “We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.” Not a word about Netanyahu; just about Otzma.
AIPAC is a serious organization that doesn’t tweet from the hip. I can imagine that the decision to retweet what the AJC had tweeted was taken after great deliberation between getting its point across on the one hand, and minimizing any allegations that it is interfering in Israel’s elections on the other.
The way this was done is important, since there were other ways for AIPAC to potentially get its point across. It could have, for example, decided to send Netanyahu a private letter without any publicity. That might have been a way to vent, but it would not have gotten the message out to the public, which was important for AIPAC. It needed publicity, because the next time it goes to meet a senator or congressman to lobby for additional funding for Israeli missile-defense projects, it might be asked about Otzma. It needed to take a moral stand now.
Alternatively, it could have canceled Netanyahu’s planned participation at its upcoming Policy Conference at the end of March. But that would have been too extreme, and would have been viewed as too harsh of a step.
In any case, Netanyahu had already announced a few weeks ago that he would be speaking at the AIPAC conference, and meeting on the sidelines with US President Donald Trump.
It was a known fact, as were the invitations that AIPAC had sent to other candidates – including Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Avi Gabbay. While some in the media tried to claim on Sunday that the invitations to Netanyahu’s competitors were sent out over the weekend in response to the Otzma merger, this is simply not true. The politicians were invited weeks ago; reports that the invitations were sent over the weekend are simply false.
In addition, on Saturday night – not a typical work day for AIPAC – the organization decided to send an email to its constituents announcing that Netanyahu is a confirmed speaker at its March conference. His face is now featured on the AIPAC website homepage. Why send the email on Saturday night? It was AIPAC’s way of walking the delicate tightrope – getting the tweet out on Friday, but showing on Saturday that its relationship with Netanyahu was still okay.
In short, if AIPAC really wanted to escalate the situation, there were ways to do that. It purposely chose the above route so that it could make sure its moral stance is heard, but at the same time not cause a rupture with the government in Israel, which is currently led by Netanyahu.
WHICH LEADS me to the next part: on Sunday, Israel Hayom ran a headline across its front page declaring “AIPAC is irresponsible for being dragged into the political tumult.” The headline was for a column written by Dror Idar.
A few important pieces of information: Israel Hayom is owned by Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. The Adelsons used to be big donors of AIPAC, and gave a large chunk of money to build the organization’s headquarters in Washington. Their names are on the wall of the building’s lobby.
A few years ago though, the Adelsons fell out with AIPAC, largely believed to be a result of the billionaire couple’s feeling that the organization was not right-wing enough due to its continued support of a two-state solution. In response, the Adelsons pulled their funding from AIPAC and became the biggest contributors to the Israeli American Council, giving more than $50 million in recent years. The IAC holds an annual conference - mostly in DC but last year and next year it will be in Florida - and its organizers have in the past admitted that they are trying to model their event after AIPAC’s Policy Conference. In other words, IAC is trying to compete with AIPAC.
Idar is also worth a comment. He has been a longtime columnist for Israel Hayom, and a few years ago was discovered to have also worked as a speechwriter for Netanyahu. His loyalty to the prime minister paid off, and in September he was named as Israel’s next ambassador to Italy, a role he is scheduled to take up this summer. Did Netanyahu order the column that ran on Sunday? It is definitely possible.
The ultimate question comes down to how this will all play out on April 9. Did Netanyahu make a brilliant political move by predicting the Gantz-Lapid merger and as a result, arrange the Otzma merger to make sure that votes for the extremist party don’t go to waste? Or, is it possible that he made a strategic mistake by paving the way for Kahanists to enter the Knesset, a move that will push some of his voters straight into Gantz’s open arms? There is also the question of how this decision will impact Israel’s moral code and the country’s ability to serve as a beacon of democracy and openness in the Middle East.
For now, this seems like a typical case of short-term Israeli politics. When working on the Otzma merger, Netanyahu was thinking about April 9 and nothing else – not Israeli-Diaspora ties, not racism and not AIPAC. Just about how to get reelected.
More concerning was that Netanyahu showed the world that almost nothing is off-limits in achieving the goal of remaining in power.
Are there redlines that he won’t cross? That remains to be seen.