AIPAC ignores Netanyahu’s racism

A man speaks into a megaphone

Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir, a leader of Otzma Yehudit, addresses attendees at a 19 August 2015 Tel Aviv protest against African asylum seekers.

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Powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC won applause this week for a tweet, but in reality sidestepped the racism controversy enveloping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party.

On 22 February AIPAC followed up an American Jewish Committee (AJC) tweet by tweeting in turn: “We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”

And who is the “racist and reprehensible party” cited by AJC and AIPAC?

Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, is a political party made up of acolytes of the racist American rabbi Meir Kahane who won a seat in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in the 1980s, before eventually being banned from office, along with his party Kach, on account of too much racism.

Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990, notoriously demanded the expulsion of all Palestinians from territory controlled by Israel. But his racist ideology has only flourished since his death, moving from the political fringes to Israel’s mainstream.

Netanyahu’s dealmaking with Otzma Yehudit, and the distinct possibility of the party joining Israel’s next governing coalition, comes 25 years to the week after the American settler Baruch Goldstein, a member of Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, massacred 29 Palestinian men and boys inside Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.

At least one leader of Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben Gvir, proudly displays a picture of Goldstein in his home.

Cautious comments

The AJC statement – endorsed by AIPAC – deemed Otzma Yehudit “reprehensible” before lumping the right-wing party with the “extreme left.”

Neither organization, however, dared say a word against Netanyahu whose overture normalizes racism even beyond the already shocking level of Likud war crimes and brutality against Palestinians in the occupied territories that is widely seen as acceptable.

Following the 1994 Hebron massacre, Israel outlawed the two parties associated with Kahane – Kach and Kahane Chai – as terrorist organizations.

But at the time, Netanyahu maintained that the violent Kahanist organizations should have only been banned for six months rather than permanently.

He is now attempting to bring Kahanists directly into the Knesset.

Writing at The Forward, Batya Ungar-Sargon argued that “while Netanyahu no longer knows the difference between Zionism and racism, American Jews do. And when Netanyahu exposed himself by partnering with Jewish Power, American Jews finally saw him for who he truly is.”

Ungar-Sargon – who a few weeks ago instigated a smear campaign falsely accusing Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of anti-Semitism – was wrong if she thought AIPAC leaders saw Netanyahu for “who he truly is.”

The very next day after its tweet against Otzma Yehudit, AIPAC was “honored” to announce that Netanyahu – the man who had embraced the party of Kahane – would be speaking at its annual conference.

Many respondents called out AIPAC – and the AJC – for failing to condemn Netanyahu’s role in the affair.

Castigating Otzma Yehudit’s racism without condemning Netanyahu’s racism is an exercise in misdirection.

Netanyahu’s racism includes his embrace of Kahanists, but of course pervades every aspect of his government’s actions against Palestinians, not least its 51-day war on Gaza in which on average 11 Palestinian children were killed every day during the summer assault of 2014.

The question now is how many members of the Democratic and Republican parties will flock to Washington to attend AIPAC’s annual conference?

Will the Democratic presidential candidates sit it out or will they normalize Israel’s leading racist by attending his speech? Will they demand more of AIPAC or remain silent?

So far US Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who recently announced her bid for the presidency, appears to be the only one to do so – though she couched her criticism within the boundaries set out by the AJC.

Hypocrisy

Democratic and Republican leaders wasted no time in calling out Ilhan Omar’s recent – and recently deleted – tweet highlighting AIPAC’s massive influence in US politics.

Baseless smears against Omar, who supports equal rights for Palestinians and Israeli Jews – unlike the vast majority of her critics – mobilized practically the entire political class against her, forcing her into an apology that is predictably proving insufficient for many of her most stridently anti-Palestinian critics.

But when AIPAC trumpets its invitation to Netanyahu the same week he cut a deal with Kahanists, there’s silence. The hypocrisy is plain to see.

There is something odd about there being any kind of fuss regarding Netanyahu’s embrace of Otzma Yehudit – as if he had otherwise been an impeccable anti-racist. But it must be some kind of progress that Israeli racism is even remarked on at all in American politics.

Just 16 years ago, AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League failed to condemn Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to invite the National Union alliance parties into his coalition government. The National Union’s members advocated the “transfer” – or ethnic cleansing – of Palestinians.

By excluding Netanyahu’s complicity, AIPAC didn’t go nearly far enough in its carefully worded tweet of rebuke this week, but political realities have changed enough that it also couldn’t entirely ignore the racism of Otzma Yehudit.

Democrats, however, still have a long way to go having largely forgotten Netanyahu’s racial incitement during Israel’s 2015 election.

Perhaps they accepted Netanyahu’s disingenuous apology after he won, for his racist rant exhorting constituents to get out and vote Likud because “Arabs are advancing on the ballot boxes in droves.”

For far greater racism and crimes against Palestinians he has never apologized. Nor is there any expectation that he ever will as most elected Democrats and Republicans, far from repudiating war crimes in Gaza, range from supportive to fully supportive.

It remains to be seen whether greater support for Palestinian rights among grassroots Democrats will push their party’s 2020 presidential hopefuls to take more critical stances towards Israel.

Up until now, Israel’s institutionalized racism against Palestinians has been regarded as completely normal in American and Israeli politics.

It is, for example, a standard mantra even of Israel’s so-called left that Arab parties should be barred from joining a governing coalition. That seldom raises an eyebrow.

In this context it takes something as extreme as Netanyahu’s embrace of Kahane’s followers for this pervasive racism to be noticed at all.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.