There is a good chance that both MK Bezalel Smotrich and MK Itamar Ben Gvir will be part of the next Netanyahu government (if MK Benjamin Netanyahu forms the next government). Anyone who follows the news here knows that all sorts of accusations have been made against both Smotrich and Ben Gvir: Racists, homophobes, transfer supporters, and most of all fans of (Jewish) terrorists. Chances are that I would agree with these accusations, at least in part.
Think of Baruch Goldstein’s picture of in Ben Gvir’s living room (I don’t know if he still has the picture but for the sake of argument let’s say that he does) and then say the words “Itamar Ben Gvir, Minister of X.” The very idea of Itamar Ben Gvir being a minister in the government, being able to speak at cabinet meetings, being an official representative of the State of Israel in a way which is significantly different that being a “mere” MK, is infuriating, correct?
The Times of Israel made these points very clearly.
(Of course some cabinet positions would be more significant than others, but that isn’t the issue.)
The conclusion from all these accusations is that both of them (along with MK Avi Maoz), but Ben Gvir especially, cannot be part of the coalition and even more so, cannot serve as a minister.
What is strange about all the noise being made about Ben Gvir being so treif is that the same people making this noise have no problem with other MKs who are just as bad or as I will argue much worse than Ben Gvir, from a moral point of view. Who are these MKs? The vast majority of the Arab MKs. MKs from the Islamic Party Ra’am along with their co‑parliamentarians from the Joint List are at least just as guilty as Ben Gvir of all these various “crimes.”
Much of what will be brought up here has received little if any mention in the English press. Even in the Hebrew media these subjects aren’t discussed that much. Only a few journalists, like Kalman Liebskind or Ishay Fridman have tried to make these issues part of the general discussion, largely to no avail. The topic is politically incorrect in the extreme and even raising these issues can bring a fearsome backlash. But it is what it is and these MKs support what they support.
This is a long read but background information must be given before getting to the heart of the matter. One last note: I am NOT writing here in support of the Religious Zionist party or any of its members.
Support for Terror
The number one accusation against Itamar Ben Gvir is his support or admiration for Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre. OK, sounds bad. But what about Mansour Abbas, head of Ra’am? A few factoids will shed some light on his position about terrorism and terrorists.
In 2013, when Abbas served as deputy chairman of the Islamic Movement, Abbas went to visit families of various Palestinian prisoners in commemoration of “Palestinian Prisoner Day” (think about that, a day to honor terrorists). Abbas started by visiting the family of Fawzi Nimer. Nimer, an Israeli citizen, headed a cell that carried out 22 terrorist attacks. Rachel Bresler, Haim Manikovitz, and Victor Guetta were murdered by Nimer’s people.
Abbas (and other members of the Islamic Movement) then went to visit the Bachri family. Two of their sons aided the terrorist who carried out the Meron Junction Suicide Bombing (nine people killed).
In addition, the delegation visited the families of terrorists who threw grenades into a crowd in Haifa and the family of someone who tried to join Hezbollah.
How does visiting these families in their homes, speaking about the prisoners and their deeds, showing them respect, compare to hanging a picture of someone on the wall? More importantly, does this sound like support for terror? Frankly, I can’t imagine the push-back if an MK dared to visit any of Baruch Goldstein’s relatives in this way.
By the way, Fawzi Nimer was sentenced to life in prison but was released as part of the Jibril Agreement. Nimer died in Gaza in 2013 and was eulogized by MKs from Balad and Chadash.
To be clear, it was not just Mansour Abbas who participated in these types of ceremonies. Other Ra’am MKs such as Mazen Ganaim and former MK Abdulmalik Dehamshe also participated in similar ceremonies. Does this sound like support for terror?
At this point, maybe people are thinking “this is all ancient history. Ra’am has changed. Mansour Abbas condemned the destruction of Lod synagogues”. Let’s test that assumption. Jump back to a little over a year ago, during the last flareup between Gaza and Israel (Shomer Chomot) when Arabs rioted throughout the country. In one of these incidents, rioters set the Effendi Hotel on fire. In the ensuing fire, 84 year old Avi Har Even was killed. Har Even, a brilliant, award-winning engineer who made significant contributions to Israel’s defense, was staying at the hotel when the riots started. Ra’am MK Said Alharumi participated in a demonstration demanding that Arab rioters who killed Har Even be released from jail (along with other rioters). At that time, Alharumi was dying of cancer (he died a few days after the demonstration) but made the effort to help free these people. Does this sound like support for terror?
Yes, Mansour Abbas condemned the burning of synagogues in Lod. Did other Ra’am MKs (not as far as I know)? How about this test: Baruch Kra, one of Israel’s most important reporters, wrote that if Itamar Ben Gvir really wants to repudiate his past he needs to voice his shame about hanging Goldstein’s picture and for supporting certain racist policies (see this tweet). Has Abbas or his MKs done anything similar? Has anyone like Kra demanded that they do anything similar? Those are rhetorical questions.
Yet with all this, Ra’am was welcomed with open arms into the coalition.
Maybe one could argue “What do you want, Ra’am is a Muslim fundamentalist party, but secular Arab parties don’t support terrorists”. Good argument, but wrong. A few highlights:
- Ayman Oden, the man so widely seen as being the moderate leader of the Joint List, has visited Marwan Barghouti (convicted of five counts of murder and responsible for scores of other deaths) and Ahmad Sa’adat (leader of the PFLP) in prison. Take a look at this picture. Odeh’s smile when greeting this man doesn’t build confidence.
- Ahmad Tibi was Arafat’s advisor; enough said. If that isn’t enough, in 2018 Tibi praised Marwan Bargouti and other Arabs who committed terrorist attacks. In 2008, Tibi gave his approval to Hezbollah’s “victory” over Israel.
- Osama Saadi denies that killing settlers is terrorism (he was specifically referring to the murder of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin). Other MKs take similar line, stating that “terrorism is a Zionist narrative”. Problem solved.
This is a sampling of the Arab MKs actions and statements. I could go on but the point is clear: Many Arab MKs fully support terrorists and terrorism and go out of their way to show their support. How does that compare to having a picture on the wall?
Note: Labor MK Ibtisam Mara’ana and Meretz MK Issawi Frej have consistently condemned terrorism. Mara’ana has apologized for controversial statements that she made in the past
Let’s be clear: You need a microscope, an extremely high-powered microscope, to find differences in Ra’am and the Religious Zionists’ approach towards homosexuals (see this article where MK Walid Yusuf Taha labeled gay people as perverts). Yet this opposition to homosexual rights didn’t stop Meretz from sitting in the same coalition with Ra’am. As part of the last government’s coalition agreement, each party had a veto on any legislation which ensured that no reforms would be made in these issues. While Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz made a few changes within his ministry, no government reforms were advanced.
I have heard interviews with coalition MKs in which they were asked about Ra’am’s position and the standard answer was “I disagree with them on this point”.
Again, the issue isn’t simply Ra’am. Tibi has been open that he will oppose any legislation that advances the needs of the gay community. Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi had an (infamous) incident in which she stated that she would abstain from any vote banning conversion therapy out of respect for her community’s conservative stand on the issue. She later backed down but the damage was done.
So explain: How is it that MK Avi Maoz can be derided endlessly for his opinions but Ra’am is kosher? How is it that Zahava Galon attacks certain rabbis over this issue but has nothing to say about Muslim MKs?
When Russia invaded Ukraine a few ago, Chadash put out a statement. Yes, they called for the war to stop immediately and stated that they opposed the invasion. That was one sentence. The rest of their long statement was a condemnation of the West for forcing the war to happen, imperialism, and all sorts of other crimes. Putin couldn’t have been happier with that statement. That was the first and last statement that the Israeli Communist Party has made about the war. About the Russian war crimes, bombardments of civilian populations, mass executions, displacement of millions, they have nothing to say.
Regarding Syria, Ayman Odeh (again, the moderate) vetoed a statement by the Joint List condemning Assad. He repeated his refusal to condemn the Syria leader in 2018. Search the web for any mention of a condemnation of Assad or any human rights issue within the Arab world; it will be hard to find.
Think that the Orthodox parties can be rough on women’s rights? Ra’am had an MK, Talab Abu Arar, who has two wives.
Is there a Difference?
All the above show very clearly there is little if any moral difference between Ben Gvir and Arab MKs in Ra’am or the Joint List. If anything their support for these horrible people and policies is leaps and bounds greater than anything that Ben Gvir or Smotrich have stated in the past. The previous coalition included Ra’am and there is every indication that the next (possible) Lapid government will also include the Joint List. Why do the people (this includes Meretz, Labor, much of Yesh Atid and Gantz’ party not to mention much of the press and public) who are disgusted and infuriated at the thought of a Netanyahu coalition that includes Ben Gvir give these MKs a pass? What possible moral difference is there justifies this split approach?
Often this question is answered in silence. Sometimes people will be straight forward and state that the difference is that Ben Gvir is Jewish (or more to the point, a religious Jew) and the Arabs aren’t. Therefore we hold the latter to a lower standard. Does that make any sense whatsoever? We are not talking about the criteria that one applies when voting for someone but who is morally fit to be a cabinet minister. Moral criteria must be applied universally or they become simple preferences, comfort zones if you want, and nothing more than that. No better than anyone else’s comfort zone.
It is true that Israel is (correctly) held to higher moral standards than countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and any other Arab country. That is because by definition these countries are non-democracies, dysfunctional in all sorts of ways, and many of them are regular violators of basic human rights (including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide). No one in their right mind would want to be held to the same standard. But you cannot argue that Israel should be held to a higher standard and at the same time, accept that some ministers will be held to a lower moral standard. That destroys the state’s very moral fiber from the inside.
A second idea is that the Arab MKs won’t be able to make significant changes so therefore they represent much less of a threat to Israeli democracy. First of all, this point is a distraction. If people want to start discussing Ben Gvir’s and Balad’s policies, please do so. Anyone looking a Balad’s manifest will find plenty of stuff which is objectionable (at best). However the question about Ben Gvir is his picture on the wall; i.e. he is defined as being morally unfit to serve. In addition, given that the last government fell (at least in part) because two Arab MKs weren’t given everything that they wanted, it is a very dangerous gamble to expect that Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid will restrain Ahmad Tibi.
A third idea raised is that bringing these parties into a coalition will lead to greater integration of the Arab population. This type of thinking is better known as “exitus ācta probat (the ends justify the means)”: these MKs may be treif but having them in the coalition serves a greater good. No doubt people in the Likud can also construct a greater good that including Ben Gvir serves. In addition, I would ask these people if having the Chareidi parties in coalitions led to greater or less integration of that sector.
Probably the real justification is that Lapid and Gantz will do anything possible to keep Benjamin Netanyahu from returning to power. If that means forming a coalition with terrorist supporters, homophobes, and fascist supporters, so be it. Another variation of the “the ends justify the means” thinking and frankly, an indication of moral bankruptcy. (Don’t take this as support for Netanyhau.)
If the imagery of Goldstein’s picture in Ben Gvir’s salon still bothers you, think about this image: In 2023 PM Lapid agrees to release thousands of Palestinian terrorists in exchange for the return of Israelis being held in Gaza. Health Minister Tibi or Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Aida Touma-Sliman or Housing Minister Abbas travel to Um El Fahm in their government-issued car, protected by Israeli government security people, to greet some of the released prisoners. They go to their homes, dance with them, hug them, and join in the festive meal. Out of respect for the feelings of Israeli Jews, the ministers refrain from having any knafeh.
Anyone willing to have this scenario become reality has absolutely no right complain about Minister of Environment Itamar Ben Gvir.