Upon learning of the victory of the right in Israel’s recent election, US State Department spokesmen Ned Price was quick to admonish the next Israeli government “to continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”
Price’s statement on shared values has been generally interpreted as a reference to the almost certain inclusion of Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party in Israel’s next government and his likely appointment to a cabinet position. The 15 seats Ben Gvir and his allies won in the election are almost half the number that Netanyahu’s Likkud party received, and Netanyahu will be unable to form a coalition without him. So who is Itamar Ben Gvir, and what are the policies he advocates that some US officials now label extreme and a threat to “our shared values”?
As a young man Itamar Ben Gvir was a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahana who advocated the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel and, at one time, Ben Gvir displayed a picture of the Jewish Terrorist Baruch Goldstein in his living room. His detractors are quick to point this out but, like most of us, Ben Gvir’s views moderated as he matured. He removed the picture of Baruch Goldstein 20 years ago and while he still admires Rabbi Kahana he does not agree with everything he said and explicitly rejects Kahana’s idea of expulsion of all Israeli Arabs.
As a lawyer Ben Gvir made a name for himself successfully defending Israeli soldiers prosecuted for doing their jobs by a political and justice system many Israelis see as overly concerned with appeasing foreign critics. This won him the gratitude and admiration of many in Israel. After winning a seat in the previous Knesset, Ben Gvir’s popularity continued to rise due to his steadfast defense of Jewish rights, not only in the Knesset, but in the street. He led marches to the Temple Mount to protest the government ban on Jews praying in our holiest site for fear of Palestinian violence. Such a ban on Jewish prayer would be illegal in the United States, where the free exercise of religion is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
In the mixed Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinians had been trying to drive out Jewish residents through terror. Ben Gvir set up a temporary Knesset office consisting of a plastic table and chairs on the street, thereby bringing media attention to the issue and forcing the police to act. The Israeli people have now voted Ben Gvir into a position where he will likely be Minister of Internal Security in charge of the police, and things will now change.
In the United States we would not tolerate violence aimed at driving anyone from any neighborhood due to their religion or ethnicity. American law does not tolerate antisemitic violence, and there is no reason Israeli law should either. A Jew has the same right to live peacefully in any neighborhood he wishes in Jerusalem as in New York, Miami or LA.
In his briefing, Price said that the US is committed “to equal measures of security, freedom, justice and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.” We should hope this includes the Jewish right to pray in our holy places and live wherever we choose in our capitol city. It is not Ben Gvir’s advocacy of these basic human rights, but racist Palestinian attempts to subvert them through violence, that are in opposition to our shared values.
Ben Gvir advocates instituting a death penalty for convicted terrorists. Most US states have the death penalty for capital crimes, so it is hard to see how instituting the same in Israel constitutes a breach of our shared values. In fact, it is hard to understand why Israel has never had a death penalty when she has suffered over seven decades of Palestinian terror, including the murder of thousands of Israeli civilians. Palestinian terrorists have also kidnapped individual Israelis and exchanged them for thousands of convicted Palestinian terrorists who are then free to commit more terror. A death penalty would eliminate this get out of jail free card for terrorists, permanently remove dangerous murderers from society and serve as a deterrent. Ben Gvir’s proposal seems like common sense.
Ben Gvir has further proposed that members of terror organizations and their supporters be deported. The United States does not allow members of Al Qaeda, ISIS or other terror organizations to operate within her borders; maintains a terrorist watch list to ensure none enter the country; and even hunts and kills them overseas. Seeking to undermine the government of the United States is treason punishable by death, not deportation. Why should Israel be expected to allow members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian terror organizations, whose declared goal is the annihilation of the Jewish State, to operate with impunity? Here too, Gvir’s proposals are in line with the laws of the United States and most every other country, and the real question is why they have never been implemented in Israel.
While President Biden remains sympathetic towards Israel, this is not true of many of the former Obama administration officials he has appointed, including Hady Amr, Uzra Zeya, Samantha Powers, Wendy Sherman, Susan Rice, Robert Malley and Maher Bitar among others. Despite their best efforts, these anti-Israel officials have, until now, been unable to create the sort of crisis in US–Israel relations they precipitated during the Obama administration. This is due not only to President Biden’s personal empathy for Israel, but to objective circumstances that have made Israel more important than ever for US foreign policy, including the Abraham accords, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s alliance with Iran and Iran’s threat to other countries in the Middle East. Continuous Palestinian terror has also made their agenda difficult to defend.
As Price explained: “What makes this relationship so strong — and what has made it so strong since Israel’s independence to the present day — is that this is a relationship that has always been based on our shared interests, but importantly our shared values.” These anti-Israel officials now seek to convince President Biden and the American public that the presence of Itamar Ben Gvir in the Israeli government means that Israel has abandoned the shared values underpinning the special relationship between the US and Israel, and in this way to end it permanently. Their talk about loss of shared values may sound innocuous, but Israel’s supporters should be aware of the serious threat this poses to US–Israeli relations, and be prepared to counter this insidious lie with the facts.