Netanyahu’s unforgivable legitimization of Israel’s very far right
When Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career is done and dusted, it will be left for history to judge his record. However, there is no need to wait for this point in the future to categorically state that he will never be absolved of his decades-long legitimization of the ultra-right, messianic elements in Israeli society. These elements are a real and immediate threat to the very fabric of the democratic system. They are deliberately attempting to sabotage relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world and want to impose Halakha jurisprudence on the country.
Netanyahu has habitually and cynically engaged with their ideas and representatives for utterly self-serving reasons, in order to ensure he is their only option to support as prime minister. This behavior first came to the fore in his unabated incitements against the Oslo Accords — incitements that played a crucial role in creating the atmosphere that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. His pandering to the far right has continued to deepen social divisions ever since, as he regularly fans hatred against Palestinians from both sides of the Green Line, the peace camp, and anyone else who is critical of him.
In a recent and characteristically cynical maneuver, only weeks before the March 23 general election, Netanyahu orchestrated a deal between Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), led by the notorious anti-Arab and anti-liberal hate preacher Itamar Ben Gvir, and the Religious Zionist Party’s Bezalel Smotrich, who has gained notoriety as a hard-core religious extremist, for them to join forces and run together in the election. With this move, the alignment is expected to pass the Knesset electoral threshold; hence, Ben Gvir, who is a disciple of the contemptuous racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, will become a legislator. All thanks to Netanyahu’s intervention.
On the one hand, the Israeli prime minister repeatedly says there is no place in his government for someone of Ben Gvir’s ilk, but in the same breath he has given him a good chance of being elected to the Knesset, and also of being a member of a future coalition led by Netanyahu. To make things even more nauseating, Netanyahu’s Likud party has signed a surplus vote-sharing agreement with the Religious Zionist Party. All this is being done to avoid a loss of right-wing votes and bolster his chances of holding onto power — plus, even more importantly for Netanyahu, to sabotage his corruption trial.
One might justifiably ask what, at the end of the day, is the difference between Netanyahu entrenching the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, hence depriving Palestinians there of their basic human rights, or his wholehearted support for the recent racist so-called nation-state law that has turned the Palestinians of Israel into second-class citizens and the repulsive, fascistic tendencies of Ben Gvir and his new-found ally Smotrich? In reality, they are all cut from a very similar cloth. Nevertheless, while the Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs of this world deeply believe in this distorted ideological version of Judaism and Zionism, for Netanyahu it is simply a mixture of racism and political opportunism.
Kahane was notorious in Israeli politics in the 1980s as the vilest of anti-Arab demagogues, but back then there was enough decency among politicians and the courts to ban him from the Knesset in the first case of an Israeli political party being outlawed for racism. Now, thanks mainly to Netanyahu, his political allies and elements of the settlement movement, this has sadly become an acceptable part of the Israeli political discourse.
Otzma Yehudit’s election manifesto makes very disturbing reading. It should deter anyone with a shred of belief in the democratic foundations of the state from voting for the party. Its agenda ranges from a direct attack on the democratic liberal foundations of the state to calls for war against the Palestinians and the rest of the region. A total and absolute war, that is, with no negotiations or concessions to those whom the party brands as the country’s enemies.
By calling for the annexation of Al-Haram Al Sharif and the entire West Bank, Ben Gvir and his party are doing their best to ensure the entire region, and beyond, will become Israel’s enemies. Their xenophobia is manifest in calls to encourage emigration, and there is no room for doubt that those being encouraged to leave are the Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the West Bank and Gaza, who are all defined in this revolting document as enemies of the Jewish state.
For Zionism, and Israel as its ultimate manifestation, there has always been a tension between its Jewishness and its support for universal human rights and democratic values. The challenge has always been to incorporate both into its system of governance and society. It has led to all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes, many of which have thus far not been resolved. But, for Ben Gvir and Smotrich, such a problem does not exist: The Halakha should rule supreme, the Jews are the absolute masters of the country, and the nation-state law does not go far enough. These versions of both Judaism and Zionism should have been met by a wall of rejection by all parties, as Kahane and his Kach party were — but back then Netanyahu was not at the helm.
The PM repeatedly says there is no place in his government for someone of Ben Gvir’s ilk, but he has given him a good chance of being elected to the Knesset.
Netanyahu cannot have it both ways. Either he adheres to the Declaration of Independence and a democratic system or he aligns himself with someone like Ben Gvir, who for decades displayed a poster of Baruch Goldstein on his living room wall. Goldstein was a contemptuous religious extremist who in 1994 opened fire on Palestinian worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 and wounding 125 before being beaten to death by survivors of the massacre. Then there is Smotrich, who declared that his wife should not have to share a maternity ward with Arab women. This unholy alliance of Netanyahu, Ben Gvir and Smotrich is clearly unfit to serve the public in any role whatsoever, let alone a leading position.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg