PM’s opening door to Ben-Gvir will hurt later in DC - analysis

If Netanyahu wins the elections on March 23, his role in bringing about the merger involving Ben-Gvir is sure to dog him going forward with some of those Democrats calling the shots in Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at a Clalit vaccination center in Zarzir, on February 9, 2021. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at a Clalit vaccination center in Zarzir, on February 9, 2021.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
In early April 2019, just days before Israel went to the polls in the first of what will turn out to be four elections in two years, US Democratic presidential hopefuls were already busy campaigning for the 2020 presidential nomination.
One of the long-shot candidates, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, had this to say on the campaign trail in Iowa: “The US-Israel relationship is one of the most important relationships that we have on the planet, and that relationship, if it is to be successful, must transcend partisanship in the United States, and it must be able to transcend a prime minister who is racist as he warns about Arabs coming to the polls, who wants to defy any prospect for peace as he threatens to annex the West Bank, and who has sided with a far-right racist party in order to maintain his hold on power.”
By saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “sided with a far-right racist party” to maintain his hold on power, O’Rourke – a champion of many progressive causes who just barely missed unseating conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz in a 2018 election – was referring to the matchmaker role Netanyahu played in bringing the far-right Otzma Yehudit together with two other small parties to run in the April 2019 election.
Netanyahu’s aim was to prevent the three parties from running separately, not cross the electoral threshold, and thereby “waste” tens of thousands of right-wing votes.
O’Rourke was not alone among the candidates who called Netanyahu racist.
For instance, Bernie Sanders had this to say: “When election time comes in Israel, [Netanyahu] always tries going even further to the Right by appealing to racism within Israel. I think it’s unfortunate. I’m not a great fan of his, and, frankly, I hope he loses his election.”
Pete Buttigieg also joined the chorus, saying: “Supporting Israel does not have to mean agreeing with Netanyahu’s politics. I don’t.”
In April 2019, Netanyahu could largely dismiss these voices coming from the Left flank of the Democratic party, a party that controlled neither the presidency nor the Senate. So O’Rourke said what he said, who cares? Within seven months O’Rourke was out of the race anyway.
In any event, President Donald Trump was firmly ensconced in the White House, and not only did Trump not have a problem with Netanyahu’s pre-election maneuvers, he actually took a major step two weeks before that election – recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights – that seemed timed to give Netanyahu a pre-election boost.
Fast forward 22 months and Israel is once again going to an election, and Netanyahu – again – has brokered a merger among Otzma Yehudit and two other small right-wing parties to help it pass the electoral threshold.
But this time Trump is no longer in office. Neither, by the way, is O’Rourke, but the Progressive wing of the party he identified with much of the time is not as easy for Netanyahu to dismiss as it might have been in April 2019.
Rourke may not currently hold an elected position, but Ilahn Omar does, and in fact was appointed last week as vice chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and global human rights. In other words, the anti-Israel Omar – a loud voice among Democrat progressives – is moving up in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Sanders may not have won the presidency, but he did get elevated to the post of chairman of the Senate’s powerful Budget Committee. And Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, now sits in Biden’s cabinet as Transportation Secretary.
What all that means is that if back in April 2019 criticism from the left wing of the party could be largely dismissed in Jerusalem as the annoying howling of those not in power, this time those voicing this type of criticism are sitting in positions of power and influence in Washington, and have the ability to make the US-Israel relationship very tense.
If Netanyahu wins the election on March 23, and if he succeeds in forming a government, his role in bringing about the merger involving Ben-Gvir and paving the way for the Kahanist to enter the Knesset – as well as the Likud signing a surplus voter agreement with Ben-Gvir’s party – is sure to dog him going forward with some of those Democrats now calling the shots in Washington.
When Netanyahu travels to that first meeting with Biden in Washington – during which he will also meet the new congressional leaders – he will surely be met with accusations that he enabled and mainstreamed racists and extreme right-wingers in Israel, just as Trump did in the US.
Doesn’t Netanyahu realize this, some might ask? Is he unaware how this looks in the corridors of power in 2021 Washington, or even among American Jews?
Certainly he realizes it. But that is not his primary concern. Netanyahu’s primary concern is winning the election and setting up a government, and if the price is acting as the broker between one right-wing party and another that until now was considered beyond the pale, then – this logic goes – so be it.
In so acting, Netanyahu is following a time-honored military doctrine: in battle, always take the immediate strategic hill before moving on to the next one, even if you know that another vicious battle lies just ahead. Why? Because if you don’t take that first hill, there will be absolutely no chance of further advancement.
In order to take that first hill, however, you have to have confidence in your ability to deal with what comes afterward, otherwise the mission is suicidal. And say what you will about Netanyahu, he has complete confidence in his ability to deal with whatever may come down the pipeline.
Netanyahu surely realizes the problems raised in his facilitating the Ben-Gvir merger with Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party. But he apparently came to the conclusion that only in this way will he have a chance of forming a government – and if can’t form a government, then nothing else matters.
This modus operandi was in full display before the 2015 election, when he said the Arabs were being driven to the polls “in droves.” Netanyahu understood the ramifications of his comment, but apparently thought that any damage would be offset by the immediate electoral advantage that statement could bring. In other words, first take the immediate hill, then deal with the fallout.
The same was true of his address to Congress in 2015, bucking the wishes of then-president Barack Obama and arguing forcefully against the Iran nuclear deal. Surely Netanyahu realized that this would poison his relationship with Obama and a good part of the Democratic party, but he also believed that since this was an existential threat to Israel he had an obligation to speak out, and he was also confident – because of his familiarity with America and long presence on the American scene – of his ability to smooth things over.
The same dynamic was at work throughout his relationship with Trump. Netanyahu was told over and over by numerous people to be careful about embracing Trump too tightly, lest it boomerang against Israel when the Democrats regained power.
Yet Netanyahu continued to embrace Trump, both because any Israeli prime minister would have done so with a president who gave Israel so much, and also because of the supreme confidence in his own ability to deal with the day after, on the day after.
Well, the day after has now arrived, and it is not going to be made any easier by Netanyahu being seen in Washington as an enabler of a racist party. Yet Netanyahu brokered this merger with eyes wide open, an indication that – again – he feels he will be able to finesse whatever problems this may cause down the line.