In 1984, Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset. He was never accepted by his fellow parliamentarians. When Kahane would speak from the plenum, members of the Likud Party would leave the hall, refusing to give legitimacy to someone they considered to be a racist.
Kahane’s opponents compared his legislative suggestions – to ban Jews from marrying Arabs and to create separate bathing areas at beaches – to the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis in the 1930s. And while he served only one term in the Knesset, Kahane’s influence has lingered long after his tenure and his assassination in 1990. His party was designated a terrorist organization abroad and was later banned from standing for the Knesset.
It was a different time. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party signed a surplus vote sharing agreement with the Religious Zionist Party led by Betzalel Smotrich, which includes the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction and the anti-LGBT Noam faction.
The 1980s were not only a different time; the Likud was a different party and had red lines it would not cross. Yitzhak Shamir, one of the Likud leaders Netanyahu says he looked up to, walked out of the Knesset plenum when Kahane would speak. The idea of signing a vote sharing agreement with him would never have been entertained. It would have been an impossible idea.
This is not the only partnership Netanyahu has forged with the Kahanist party. In the first round of elections in 2019, Netanyahu helped broker another deal that saw a merger between Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit. As now, also then, Netanyahu added a member of the party to his own Likud list to help facilitate the merger.
When the deal was made in 2019, Jewish communities across the world responded with a series of condemnations. AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee came out vehemently against the merger, stressing their long-term policy not to meet with members of the party.
This time around there were no condemnations from the US or other countries. In Israel, the news was also met largely by apathy, a sign of how desensitized the Israeli electorate has become after three rounds of elections and as it nears its fourth.
It is also a sign of how no one is surprised anymore by what Netanyahu does, or is willing to do, to ensure his political survival as he searches for a way to avoid standing trial and possibly being convicted in the three cases against him on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. It is a sign of how little Israelis expect nowadays from their political leadership.
This is a sad state of affairs and it should not be accepted. Israelis should care and should not allow the legitimization of a political movement with racist roots and policies to pass with no more than a shrug of the shoulders.
This is a new low that should worry us about what is yet to come. But this it is also a problem with the situation that Israel is currently in. When a sitting prime minister is on trial, there will always be a mix between what is being done for the country and what is being done to advance the politician’s personal best interests.
This is bad for the country and particularly for our democracy. What else should we expect to happen before and after the March 23 election? We don’t yet know but we must be vigilant. Israel’s democratic character is at risk and needs protecting. Alliances with anti-democratic forces like the party led by Smotrich and joined by Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir is an unholy alliance and should be condemned. This is a party whose members don’t believe in giving rights to LGBT people and speak about Arabs in a manner that is simply intolerable in any democratic society.
Netanyahu has every right to defend himself in the Jerusalem District Court where his trial is being heard but political red lines must be placed that even he cannot cross. Shamir understood that. Other past members of the Likud too. Sadly, Netanyahu does not.