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A moral dilemma in an Israeli election scramble

A merger in the center could dethrone Netanyahu, but should a controversial maneuver cost him the respect of American Jews?

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the Blue and White party give a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on Feb. 21, 2019. Credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the Blue and White party give a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on Feb. 21, 2019. Credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). He is also a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for Newsweek, as well as a writer for other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.

The merger this week of two of Israel’s leading parties—retired Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz’s Hosen Yisrael and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid—creates the real possibility that the April elections will result in a change in power. The alliance called Blue and White is now the favorite to win the most seats in the next Knesset.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the Blue and White party give a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on Feb. 21, 2019. Credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.

That places Gantz in position to put an end to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on the country’s top office after 10 years. It remains to be seen if he can lay claim to the center of Israeli politics that the Likud has owned since the post-Oslo collapse of Labor and the left. But even if the Blue and White finishes first, the Likud and its allies may still retain a blocking majority that will ensure that Netanyahu stays in the prime minister’s office. And it was the prime minister’s efforts to ensure that this happens that got almost as much attention as the Gantz-Lapid merger.

Israel uses a proportional scheme in which parties get seats based on their percentage of the total vote. But since there is a minimum (now set at 3.5 percent) in order to make it into the Knesset, that means the votes of those who support parties that fall below that mark will be “wasted.” The proliferation of parties often means certain sectors of the electorate wind up being underrepresented in the Knesset.

Netanyahu wishes to avoid a situation in which voters who support his center-right coalition might outnumber those who support Gantz and his potential left-wing governing parties, but still fail to prevent him from winning.

That’s why he spent part of the last week trying to ensure that the parties to his right consolidated their strength, rather than running under three or four separate banners. And to do that, he had to persuade one of them to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, a party that is led by former followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. This has generated a storm of criticism for Netanyahu from those who believe that he has crossed a line that no Israeli prime minister should approach.

Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in the United States and played a role in the early stages of the struggle for Soviet Jewry. But the JDL was tainted by violence, and after he immigrated to Israel, he advocated for the expulsion of all Arabs. He was elected to the Knesset in 1984, but banned from running for re-election on the grounds that he advocated racism. After his assassination by Islamists in 1990, his movement floundered and was ultimately banned as a terrorist group.

Nevertheless, support for some of his ideas has persisted. By allying with less extreme religious Zionists to form Otzma, these Kahanists might receive as much as 3 percent of the vote. That wouldn’t get them into the Knesset. Yet by siphoning support from other right-wing parties, it would waste the votes of those who want Netanyahu to remain prime minister as part of a right-wing coalition.

Many on the right remember that in the 1992 election in which Yitzhak Rabin led Labor to victory and ultimately led to  Oslo, that triumph was made possible by the fact that the parties to the right of Likud split and ran on three separate tickets, rather than one. That cost the right as many as three seats, and meant that the Likud and its allies were unable to keep Rabin from forming a government.

So it makes sense for the Likud to want its allies to consolidate rather than split. But by using his influence to ensure that Otzma was absorbed into the larger Jewish Home faction, Netanyahu is being accused of the moral equivalent of an American president forming a coalition with the Ku Klux Klan.

Is that charge fair? Yes and no.

The charge sticks to the extent that Netanyahu is normalizing Otzma’s leadership in way that rightly troubles most Israelis, not to mention Diaspora Jews.

Giving racism a broader platform coarsens Israel’s discourse and diminishes its status as a pluralist nation in which all are equal before the law. It also gives ammunition to those who wrongly accuse of it being an “apartheid” state. For Netanyahu to involve himself with Otzma, even by commissioning others to deal with it, demeans his office and undermines the moral leadership that is the most important purpose of any prime minister (a point that Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had no patience for Kahane, often made).

Netanyahu sullied himself by crafting a deal that may or may not bring one Otzma representative into the Knesset while giving Jewish Home two seats in his cabinet if he wins in April. But it’s also true that while this is deeply unfortunate, it won’t destroy Israeli democracy.

Thanks to Israel’s hyper-democratic proportional system, extremists have sat in the Knesset throughout the country’s history. That includes Kahanist sympathizers, as well as representatives from some Arab political parties who currently sit in the parliament. Some advocate communism or a racist platform of Islamism dedicated to destroying Israeli democracy and the Jewish state.

There will be some American Jews who will use the alliance with Otzma as an excuse for disassociating themselves from Israel. But these are the same people who don’t consider the presence of at least two pro-BDS Democratic members of Congress who tweet anti-Semitism to be a reason to leave the Democratic Party, let alone to discredit American democracy.

It is possible that by dirtying his hands in this manner, Netanyahu has been too clever by half. It may help Gantz capture the political center that has sustained the Likud over the last decade. But either way, Israel is still saddled with a system that always forces its leaders to cut deals with the forces of religious or political extremism. As awful as Netanyahu’s move seems, if Gantz is lucky enough to have a chance to form a coalition, the moral distinction between him and the prime minister may not seem quite as stark as it does today.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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