A defining day for Israeli voters

Let’s face it, politics can be complicated. Especially in an election campaign; and especially in Israel, with its multiple parties splitting and merging every other day. We should be grateful then for that one day last week, when two big news stories served to greatly simplify the choice facing Israeli voters.

The day began with the news that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, panicked that fragmentation on the Israeli right would result in too few parties clearing the electoral threshold, had succeeded in persuading the now rump Bayit Yehudi party to run together with Otzma Yehudit. This was no run-of-the-mill, ‘Israeli parties merging’ story; Otzma is the direct political descendant of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, banned from Israeli politics in the late eighties for overt racism. Part two of this Big News day came late in the evening; at the eleventh hour, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz had agreed to an electoral pact that would see them run as the leaders of a joint list – the Blue and White alliance.

Now, Netanyahu is no Kahanist. No one other than the most brazen or ignorant of Israel-bashers could claim that the prime minister subscribes to this foul ideology. No, this was simply a repugnant act of political expediency, in the same vein as his willingness to demonize the Attorney General, the police and the media. He is fighting for his political life (and possibly his freedom), and it would seem that he has abandoned all scruples in his efforts to win.

The prime minister of the State of Israel should be leading the charge against these kinds of violent and hateful bigots, not inviting them into the Knesset. Yitzhak Rabin, speaking in the Knesset after the shooting to death of over 40 Muslim worshipers in Hebron by the Kahanist Baruch Goldstein in 1994, got it exactly right:

You are not part of the community of Israel..You are an errant weed…Judaism spits you out…You are a shame to Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.

Pointedly, Rabin directed those words not just at Goldstein himself, but “to him and to those like him”. We know full well that the Otzma leaders are “those like him”. (One of their number, Baruch Marzel, organizes a commemoration event at Goldstein’s grave on the anniversary of his death each year.)

But Netanyahu has not just betrayed the expectations of his office; he has betrayed Zionism itself. The founding fathers of the State of Israel, whatever their political differences, agreed on the establishment of a democratic Jewish state, where Israel’s non-Jewish citizens would be afforded equal status. None more so in fact, than the man who founded the movement which would ultimately become the Likud Party: Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who wrote:

Even after the formation of a Jewish majority, a considerable Arab population will always remain in Palestine. If things fare badly for this group of inhabitants then things will fare badly for the entire country. The political, economic and cultural welfare of the Arabs will thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel.

His successor, and the first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, was a consistent voice for equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens throughout his many years in the Knesset.

And what of the founder of the Zionist movement himself? Theodore Herzl has often been acclaimed as a prophet, in fact he did predict Jewish extremism to a surprising degree of accuracy. In his novel, Altneuland, the clearest depiction we have of the Judenstaat of Herzl’s imagination, the plot includes an election for the Congress of this new Jewish state. The main contest is between the liberal party of the book’s hero, and a new party headed by a racist Rabbi named Dr. Geyer. Geyer’s platform is one in which non-Jews would be denied citizenship rights, including the right to vote. As Shlomo Avineri has written in his recent intellectual biography of Herzl:

The arguments of Geyer’s intolerant followers are clear and unambiguous, growing out of an ethnocentric, racist, and xenophobic world-view…

This is a near-perfect commentary on Kahane and his followers, now running for Knesset with Netanyahu’s blessing.

Only a few days have passed and some of Israel’s best friends in the United States are already voicing their disgust and objections. AIPAC rarely, if ever, comments on internal Israeli politics, it has on this, reiterating its longstanding refusal “to meet members of this racist and despicable party.” Even American conservative supporters of Israel have piled on, with one describing Netanyahu’s “cynical ploy” as a “stain” for which “Netanyahu and his coalition deserve to lose power”.

Even the most reliable – and right-wing – of Israel’s US allies, Evangelical Christians, may soon be voicing their displeasure. One wonders what Vice-President Mike Pence, for example, would make of one of Otzma’s leaders, Benzi Gopstein. As well as encouraging his young followers to beat up Arabs they meet on the street, Gopstein has also organised protests against Christmas celebrations, referring to Christians as “blood-sucking vampires“.

Let us be clear: these are people who talk about non-Jews the way that Louis Farrakhan talks about Jews.

So, to return to where this article began, on one day last week the choice facing Israelis became crystal clear –

A government led by the Blue and White of Lapid, Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – Israeli patriots, committed to our founding values of Zionism and democracy, a government of national responsibility, with egos put aside for the greater good. Or a government led by a man whose moral compass is completely broken; so desperate to remain in power that he maneuvers to elect the darkest elements in Israeli political life – racists and fanatics of a kind that Jewish history should have warned us never to emulate.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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