Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for early elections.
Not in response to a state of crisis in the State of Israel, and not in response to a potential security concern — but in an attempt to protect himself from going to jail.
Starting back in January 2017, the Israeli police began investigating Netanyahu. They’ve been looking into actions that reflect bribery and breech of the public trust that seem to have begun as early as 2013 and have continued for years. Finally, the Attorney General of Israel’s investigation has concluded and an official recommendation to indict Israel’s prime minister on three separate criminal acts of corruption has been handed down.
Neither Bibi nor the country was surprised at the announcement. Bibi already had his response planned. By calling for an early election — and this was a contest he was convinced he could win — he hoped to turn his re-election into a referendum, where the people would demonstrate their belief in his innocence and his right to immunity.
But things may not go as Bibi envisioned. Usually elections bring out the underlying tense fault lines about Israelis’ attitudes toward Palestinians and the future of the West Bank, as well as toward the growing economic gap between the richest and the poorest Israeli citizens. This time, however, the elections have brought to the forefront issues that perhaps are even more dangerous and fundamental, concerning the very essence of Israel and its democracy. And elections also have brought to light the fault lines in the relationship between Israel and American Jews.
A new centrist party, called Kachol Lavan (blue and white), has emerged. It’s led by a popular general, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who has joined forces with an established centrist, secular party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. According to the polls at the time of this writing, Kachol Lavan well might win the plurality of votes, which would make it the largest single group in the next Knesset. It won’t get a majority of seats in the Knesset, but if in fact it does get the greatest number of votes, President Rivlin will ask it to partner with other parties to form a coalition government.
To back up a bit for some explanation — Israel is a parliamentary democracy, which means (among other things) that Israelis do not vote for candidates directly. They vote for parties. The Knesset’s makeup is determined by the proportion of votes each of the parties that had a candidate in the elections garnered, as long as the vote for the party list exceeds a threshold margin. If a party list should fail to win at least 3.25 percent of the total vote, that party will not be represented in the Knesset, and the votes that had been cast for it will be dismissed. To become the ruling coalition, 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset must coalesce.
Netanyahu’s only hope of remaining in power — and perhaps in staying out of jail — is to have secured enough guaranteed partners before the election to already have a majority coalition, no matter which party gets the most votes. He has done this successfully in the past, when he outmaneuvered Tzippy Livni’s party to form a ruling coalition, even though her party had more votes.
For Bibi to maximize his ability to form a ruling coalition, no matter how the public votes, he must collect as many seats as possible. His existing coalition is too fragmented for him to count on, so he has to find a new collection of possible parties that he can combine. To do so Netanyahu brokered an electoral union among Ichud Leumi (the National Union), a sitting member of Bibi’s coalition); Bayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), a former partner in the existing coalition, and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). Recent polls show that neither Bayit Hayehudi nor Otzma Yehudit would garner 3.25 percent of the vote. However, if they combine, that union would save what would have been lost votes and add more seats to Bibi’s coalition. To close the deal, Netanyahu guaranteed that an Otzma Yehudit representative would sit on the Knesset judicial appointments committee.
Once the deal was announced, it created a political storm.
Otzma Yehudit is led by former MK Michael Ben-Ari; its ideology is far right and ultra-nationalist. Uniquely, even on Israel’s right, its members espouse ideas associated with Kahanism.
Kahanism is an extremist ideology. It is based on the views of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a violent supremacist who advocated and inspired acts of terror. He and his disciples were banned from the Knesset in 1988 on the grounds that their ideology was “racist and undemocratic.” Kahanist organizations still are defined as terror groups by the U.S. State Department and other global bodies.
Otzma Yehudit’s leaders and candidates for the Knesset, Ben-Ari and lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir, are disciples of Kahane and followers of the racist Kahanist ideology. Ben-Ari was refused a visa to America in 2012 because of his affiliation with Kach. He long has argued that Arabs should be expelled from Israel. Ben-Gvir has spent his career in law defending right-wing activists accused of terrorism. A photo of Baruch Goldstein hangs in his living room.
Last weekend, the world was horrified when 50 Moslem worshipers were killed and another 50 were wounded in New Zealand by a self-proclaimed racist and fascist. Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Kahane with the same world view, murdered 29 people at a Hebron mosque in 1994.
Otzma Yehudit celebrates Goldstein.
Israel’s Central Election Commission and the Israeli Supreme Court must confirm candidates and lists as acceptable. Under Article 7A of Israel’s Basic Law, “incitement to racism” can disqualify a candidate. Under that law, Meir Kahane and his Kach Party were banned. There were several requests to the Central Election Commission to prohibit Otzma Yehudit and both Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir from running in the election, but the commission voted to allow them. Last week, however, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to bar Michael Ben-Ami and citing an extensive history of “severe and extreme racism.” With an 8 to 1 vote, the court agreed. But this does not prevent Otzma Yehudit from participating in the election; Ben Ari simply was replaced by another candidate on the list that the Netanyahu-engineered union presented.
In 2013, Ben-Ari’s Otzma L’Yisrael failed to pass the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset. Since then, Kahanism has been absent from the Knesset. But now there is a very real possibility that at least one Kahanist will be in Israel’s next Knesset.
Netanyahu’s ploy was roundly denounced in Israel and condemned in the United States as well. But we should understand this move not merely as an act of cynical political maneuvering but also as an essential element of ideology.
Creating this marriage with the devil was not enough. Netanyahu’s coalition partners began baiting their Kahol Lavan rivals, claiming that these candidates would allow Arabs in a governing coalition. Israeli actress Rotem Sela wrote an Instagram response: “What is the problem with the Arabs???… Dear god, there are Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal.”
Netanyahu responded by declaring: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people—and only the Jewish people.” Doubling down on his racist cries during the last election, Bibi has chosen to cut up the Israeli Declaration of Independence into paper dolls and declare that Israel no longer is a state for all its citizens.
This is not an accident; he wishes to use this new definition to deny Israel’s democratic obligation to serve all its citizens; in this way, he wishes to justify discrimination against non-Jews in Israel.
You would think that given the history of discrimination that Jews faced in the centuries of their dispersion, this wouldn’t have happened. To Israel’s credit, there was an outcry against Netanyahu. “Wonder Woman” actress Gal Gadot wrote: ““Love your neighbor as yourself…The responsibility for sowing hope and light for a better future for our children is ours. Rotem, sister, you are an inspiration to us all.”
Netanyahu’s promotion of the union between Bayit Hayehudi, Ozma Yehudit, and Ichud Leumi — making it possible for a Kahanist party to join the Knesset — has been condemned widely in the American Jewish community. Both AIPAC and J Street, the Israel Religious Action Center on Behalf of the Reform Movement, the National Council of Jewish Women, Americans for Peace Now, Partners for Progressive Israel, T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Ameinu, the Jewish Labor Committee, Reconstructing Judaism, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly, among other groups, all made clear their opposition to the Netanyahu-engineered union and Israel’s Central Election Committee’s decision to permit Ozma Yehudit to participate in the election.
Recalling the widespread opposition to Meir Kahane’s Kach party, Truah’s executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, said: “Thirty-plus years after Likud leaders walked out on Kahane speaking in Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition are threatening Israel’s democracy by orchestrating the entrance of violent extremists into the government… Kahanists constitute a genuine danger.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, described the matter in terms familiar to American Jews. Netanyahu’s parliamentary move, he, said, is “the equivalent in the United States of the KKK being welcomed into the corridors of power.”
New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch said: “A party that celebrates Meir Kahane and that preaches genocide has no place in the Knesset.”
The American Jewish Committee said that it “does not normally comment on political parties or candidates during an election. But the announcement that Otzma Yehudit, a new political party formed by long-time followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, is now seeking election to the Knesset, we feel compelled to speak out. The views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”
The American Israel Political Action Committee said: “We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a long-standing policy not to meet with members of this racist reprehensible party.”
But AIPAC did not withdraw its invitation to Netanyahu to speak to its members on the eve of the election, even though it was Netanyahu’s efforts that made the entrance of Otzma Yehudit into the Knesset likely. AIPAC has invited a representative of the West Bank settler movement to speak as well.
What has driven our Jewish state to move so radically away from the very cornerstones of its inception? How have we gone from a Declaration of Independence that proudly announced: “The State of Israel, will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exile; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel,; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture….”
To a prime minister who boldly declares that “The State of Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and only the Jewish people.”
Israel is the Jewish nation-state. As a democracy, it is a state of its citizens. Israel’s Declaration of Independence reveals the reality that there is no contradiction between these two features as long as Israel maintains a large Jewish majority.
What has happened to Israeli politics that a party advocating racist violence, a party that was rejected 20 years ago, is now accepted as a participant in Israeli political affairs. It even is promised the opportunity to influence the choice of judicial appointments. This turn away from democracy is the result of 50 years of occupation, a festering sore that is corrupting Israel’s soul. The advocates of the occupation understand the contradiction between the absorption of the occupied territories and Israel’s character as a democratic Jewish state.
More than 50 years of military rule over non-citizen residents, 50 years of a messianic dream for the greater Land of Israel, 50 years of growing tension between a two-state solution that has yet to be and a one-state solution that will destroy what we are, already has begun to destroy us.
The advocates of a permanent occupation and a one-state solution understand the contradiction between the absorption of the occupied territories and Israel’s character as a democratic Jewish state. Disinterested in democracy, they are happy to jettison it. Jewish zealots have no use for democracy. We have seen in our history where zealotry leads.