All politics is local but local politics can also have a ripple effect that reverberates around the world. So it is with next week’s Israeli election.
Whatever the outcome of this fifth election in just over three years, Israeli voters are highly unlikely to produce a clear decision or a stable government but it threatens to do great damage to Israeli democracy and its standing abroad, particularly among American Jews.
Behind that threat is Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s courtship of some of Israel’s most extreme politicians, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and their Religious Zionist alliance (RZ). These ultranationalist leaders reportedly have been promised seats in the cabinet if Netanyahu forms the next government.
In exchange for their votes, some powerful ministries and the keys to the treasury, they’re dangling before Netanyahu what has been called a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The disgraced former prime minister is currently in criminal court charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and the RZ could be the key to keeping him out of prison and returning him to power with all its lucrative rewards and Cuban cigars. Barak Ravid reports in Axios that Netanyahu already has the commitment of two of the extremist pair to introduce legislation making it tougher to prosecute politicians for corruption, which would effectively quash his indictment.
The far Right ultranationalists Netanyahu is courting
Ben-Gvir is a disciple of the late Meir Kahane, who with his rabidly racist Kach party was banned from Israeli politics in 1994 and put on the Israeli and US lists of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Ben Gvir himself was convicted in 2006 of supporting a terror organization and inciting racism. He’s been seen recently publicly waving a gun at Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem, urging soldiers to shoot demonstrators. An admirer of Hebron mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, he says all Israeli Arabs he deems unloyal to the state must be expelled. In fact, as Minister of Justice or Internal Security, jobs he covets, he could use his power to actively encourage many to leave.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid has accused Ben-Gvir of inciting Jewish settler attacks on IDF soldiers. As a lawyer and a politician, he has defended many settlers involved in violence, a growing problem that includes attacks on Palestinians, soldiers and other Israelis. With him in the cabinet, the problem will certainly get much worse. Lapid also warned that with the RZ in the next government, gains in the rights of women and LGBT people can be erased in one day.
The RZ, an anti-secular, anti-Arab, anti-democratic alliance, is running third in the latest polls, with about 13 (out of 120) Knesset seats. Sixty-one seats are needed to form a government. That can make the RZ king-makers or king-breakers. Netanyahu could be their benefactor or their hostage. In the words of analyst Ben Caspit, “the tail could well wag the dog.”
Netanyahu appears less concerned with their agenda than with ending his corruption trial, gaining immunity, regaining power and getting revenge on those who have done him wrong. Ze’ev Begin, son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, said he left the Likud because under Netanyahu it has become anti-democratic.
FASCISTIC FORCES like RZ and the ultra-religious pose a clear and present danger to the Jewish state. If they comprise a swing bloc in the next Israeli government, as appears possible, the nation’s status as a free and democratic government will be greatly tarnished, if not endangered, and its international stature diminished.
Elevating these heirs and disciples of the late Kahane, who preached and practiced violence and hatred, will further alienate all but the most extreme among American Jewry and other friends of Israel in the Congress and beyond the Beltway, although it may well please Armageddon-minded evangelical Christian supporters of Israel. Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, called Ben-Gvir “a danger to the state of Israel. He is the modern Israeli version of an American white supremacist and a European fascist.”
Netanyahu bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for driving a deep and growing chasm between American Jewry and Israel that could worsen if he returns to power. But he appears unconcerned, having said that American Jews are of diminishing importance to Israel, at least his version of Israel, particularly compared to the much more numerous evangelical Christians. The two faith groups are, for the most part, on opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum, and Netanyahu has spent decades courting one while taking the other for granted.
He’s shown the same disdain for the Democratic Party in Congress and the White House, which consistently win roughly 70% of Jewish votes.
American politicians warn Netanyahu away from Ben-Gvir
The biggest problems a farther-Right Netanyahu government is likely to confront will be with the Biden administration, the Democratic Party and American Jewry. Republicans, many of whom share the ex-PM’s affinity for autocrats like President Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Victor Orban, may be unfazed.
Two senior Democratic members of Congress have warned him against bringing ultranationalist and ultra-religious parties into the government. Netanyahu was said to be furious when Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and one of Israel’s strongest supporters, told him extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben-Gvir could hurt ties between Jerusalem and Washington, Ravid reported.
Rep. Brad Sherman, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, similarly warned that it would undermine bipartisan support, the pillar of Israel’s strength in Washington. Other good friends of Israel as well as political and diplomatic figures have been sending similar messages.
Publicly Jewish organizations that spoke out in the past against bringing such extremists into the government – notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs – are saying nothing openly this time, reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Hopefully they’re sending a tough and honest message through private channels, although their recent history suggests a timorous silence; better yet, they won’t have to if Netanyahu and his band of bigots go down to defeat and a center-left government under Lapid can begin rebuilding Israel democracy at home and its respect abroad.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist and former AIPAC legislative director.