Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brokered an electoral alliance that is almost certain to bring Israel’s version of the Ku Klux Klan into the Israeli parliament when elections are held later this month.
Enter Otzma Yehudit, or the Jewish Power party.
Otzma Yehudit is strongly influenced by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose virulently anti-Palestinian Kach party was barred from Israeli elections more than 30 years ago.
Since being proscribed, Kach has been declared a terrorist organization in most western countries, including the United States, Canada and the European Union.
Most of the leadership of Jewish Power had previously been involved with Kach, including its current leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, who held a position in Kahane’s movement in his student days.
Jewish Power’s former leader and current chair, Michael Ben Ari, has been banned from entering the US because of his links to Jewish terrorism.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu is widely reported to have offered sweeteners to get Jewish Power and two other extreme right parties to establish a new alliance called Religious Zionism.
And despite claims by Netanyahu that Ben Gvir will not be given a ministerial post in his government after the 23 March election, Netanyahu may have to capitulate if his far-right and religious coalition needs Jewish Power to secure a majority of seats.
Polls currently suggest no one commands a clear majority.
Since its formation in 2012, Jewish Power has not managed on its own to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of votes cast – the equivalent of about four seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Last month, however, Netanyahu’s Likud party signed a surplus vote-sharing agreement with Religious Zionism.
Netanyahu’s move in part reflects his desperation to win a decisive victory on 23 March after three stalemated elections over the past two years.
Without a clear parliamentary majority, he cannot pass an immunity law that will block his current trial on several charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. So far he has successfully dragged out the proceedings, using Covid-19 restrictions as the pretext.
After Netanyahu’s intervention, the electoral pact with Jewish Power is almost certain to ensure Ben Gvir makes it into the next parliament.
He has the third slot on Religious Zionism’s candidate list and current polls suggest the group will win between four and five seats.
Criticizing Netanyahu’s role as matchmaker, the Haaretz daily accused him of awarding “a kashrut [kosher] certificate to Kahanism” – the racist ideology that underpins Jewish Power.
Netanyahu’s aim is to ensure that the most extreme, small right-wing religious parties combine to pass the threshold and don’t waste votes that could be the difference between victory for his ultra-nationalist bloc and a win for his opponents.
As one Israeli analyst noted, Netanyahu’s dependence on Religious Zionism maximizing its seat count means he will be committed to doing everything possible to push the “ticket over the threshold” in the final stages of the campaign.
At the same time as aiding the extreme right, Netanyahu has also worked hard to break up the Joint List, a faction representing Israel’s large minority of Palestinian citizens.
He is not only trying to maximize seats in his favor, he is trying to weaken the coalition of parties ranged against him.
It is not the first time Netanyahu has sought to bring Jewish Power into the parliament, despite its overt Jewish supremacist politics. He brokered a similar deal in time for the April 2019 election, though Ben Gvir was not placed high enough to win a seat.
On that occasion, leading Jewish American organisations including AIPAC voiced their opposition, calling Jewish Power a “racist and reprehensible party.”
It has been notable that on this occasion there has been much less of a backlash.
In the new deal, Ben Gvir has a far more prominent place alongside Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union party, which has joined Netanyahu’s governments in the past. The third partner is Noam, another religious far-right party in a crowded field whose distinguishing feature is its venomous homophobia.
This has brought vocal opposition from other quarters. Ohad Hizki, head of an Israeli LGBT task force, responded: “Netanyahu has violated his promises to the gay community time and again, but this time a red line has been crossed that cannot be silently accepted.”
Banned from running
Previous Jewish Power leaders have been banned from standing by a judge-led Central Election Committee, comprising representatives from the major parties. However, Ben Gvir has faced no challenge.
Rather, he went on the offensive himself, petitioning the committee for a blanket ban on candidates who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, claiming they were all “terrorist supporters.”
Jewish Power’s electoral weakness since its founding reflects in part the fact that it has had difficulty differentiating itself ideologically from the larger mainstream parties as they move ever further rightwards.
It has also been stymied by the constraint that its platform must remain ostensibly within the law. Its vulgarity rather than its policies appears to put off many voters on the right.
Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, is a former Kach member who has served in governments with Netanyahu as defense and foreign minister.
Lieberman has long promoted one of Jewish Power’s signature policies: that Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens be expelled unless they declare loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state.
Lieberman has even called for “disloyal” Palestinian citizens to be “beheaded.”
Other Jewish Power policies overlap with prevailing views in Netanyahu’s Likud party, including the rejection of Palestinian statehood; support for the formal annexation of all or much of the West Bank; the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem; and vehement opposition to miscegenation, or relationships between Jews and Palestinians.
Smotrich, Jewish Power’s main partner in Religious Zionism, shares many of its anti-Palestinian views but has previously served as Netanyahu’s transport minister. He has called for Palestinian citizens to be denied housing and for Jewish-only maternity wards.
Jewish Power’s leader, Ben Gvir is also a prominent activist in the violent settler enclave established in the Palestinian city of Hebron with Israeli state support.
In 2007, he was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terror group after holding up signs reading, “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Rabbi Kahane was right: The Arab MKs [members of Knesset] are a fifth column.”
He once prominently displayed in his home a photo of Baruch Goldstein, an extremist who killed 29 and wounded 125 Muslims at worship in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque in 1994, in an effort to derail the Oslo accords.
As The Electronic Intifada has reported, a recently unearthed clip from 1995 of Ben Gvir shows him dressed as Goldstein for the Jewish holiday of Purim saying: “He is my hero.”
Burn down churches
Trained as a lawyer, Ben Gvir has defended a series of far-right suspects in high-profile terrorism and hate-crime cases. Such work included two settlers who were charged with an arson attack on a Palestinian family in the village of Duma in 2015.
An 18-month-old baby was among the victims burnt to death.
Ben Gvir has also served as the lawyer for Lehava, an anti-miscegenation group whose members physically assault Palestinians they suspect of dating Jewish women.
Lehava’s leader, Bentzi Gopstein, has also expressed support for burning down churches.
Netanyahu has promised the Religious Zionism alliance a seat on the Judicial Appointments Committee. Ben Gvir will hope to use that position to bring yet more settlers into the courts as judges.
At least two judges on Israel’s high court – Noam Sohlberg and David Mintz – are known to live in the settlements.
Haaretz observed of the deal: “Netanyahu’s actions are an admission that Kahanism is an ally, a frequent visitor and practically a member of the Likud family.”
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Website: jonathan-cook.net