One of the most prominent supporters of the State of Israel in the U.S. Senate recently issued a warning to the leader of Israel’s largest party. In the context of the calendar, it seemed to represent the view of many other Americans who think that Benjamin Netanyahu—the Likud chairman hoping to add to his record as his country’s longest- serving prime minister after the Nov. 1 Knesset elections—has some atoning to do.
It was Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) who served notice to Netanyahu that if, as is likely, he is considering including MK Itamar Ben-Gvir in his next cabinet, he’s endangering the U.S.-Israel alliance. Ben-Gvir is the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) faction of the Religious Zionist Party, which polls say will be the third largest in the next Knesset and essential to the formation of the right-wing/religious coalition Netanyahu hopes to form after the election. As far as Menendez is concerned, however, he’s an extremist who would complicate efforts to maintain support for Israel if he is allowed to serve in high office.
Menendez is far from alone in voicing concerns about Ben-Gvir, but a lot of the same people who are up in arms about him had no problems when a different brand of extremist was included in an Israeli government last year. While Ben-Gvir is considered beyond the pale, when Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am Party provided the decisive votes last year that enabled the formation of the coalition (then led by Naftali Bennett and subsequently by now interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid) there was general rejoicing among those who publicly worry about Israeli extremism. So, while there is good reason to worry about what Ben-Gvir might do if he were a cabinet minister, the hypocrisy on display in this controversy shouldn’t go without notice.
According to Axios, Menendez specifically brought up the issue of Ben-Gvir in a meeting with Netanyahu in Israel earlier this month. The anonymous sources who leaked the account of the dispute say that Netanyahu was angered by what seemed to be an ultimatum from Menendez, but that the senator stood his ground on the issue.
Whether or not Americans should be issuing diktats, even when presented as friendly advice, to Israeli political leaders, Menendez should be taken seriously. In a party where sympathy for the Jewish state has been on the wane as its intersectional left-wing embraces anti-Zionism, the senior senator from New Jersey has been a stalwart supporter.
He was a courageous opponent of former President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran, and is exactly the kind of Democrat who friends of the Jewish state worry are fast becoming extinct. His concerns about Ben-Gvir are widely shared by many in the pro-Israel community, including some who would be reluctant to publicly criticize Netanyahu.
The 46-year-old Ben-Gvir was a teenage activist in the Kach Party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who supported the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and who was effectively banned from the Knesset (to which he was elected to one term in 1984) for being a racist. Membership in Kach led to Ben-Gvir’s being rejected for induction into the Israel Defense Forces when he came of age—a serious blow to the future of any non-haredi Jewish Israeli.
He furthered his reputation as an extremist by stealing the hood ornament from the vehicle of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin mere weeks before he was assassinated, and reportedly said, “We got to his car and we’ll get to him, too.”
Though he had no role in Rabin’s murder, that boast was sealed into the public’s memory as an example of extremist incitement to violence.
He has continued to burnish his reputation as an extremist and was indicted dozens of times for racist statements (Israel may be a free country but there are no First Amendment protections for freedom of speech as in the United States) and was convicted once of incitement against Arabs. As someone who reportedly hung a picture of mass murderer Dr. Baruch Goldstein—killer of 29 Arabs worshiping at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994—on the wall of his home and only removed it once he became a serious candidate for the Knesset, he’s the sort of figure found loathsome even by some on the Zionist right.
Ben-Gvir consistently pushes the envelope with respect to normative political behavior and built a reputation as a lawyer who represented Israelis accused of attacks on Arabs. But he has distanced his party just enough from Kahane’s ideology to the point where he can credibly claim to speak for a significant segment of voters rather than the lunatic fringe. As a result, it is no longer possible for Netanyahu to ignore or isolate the party he created.
More to the point, Netanyahu has played a role in persuading other right-wing leaders to join forces with Ben-Gvir when running for the Knesset, lest some votes that might help create a Likud-led government be wasted in Israel’s proportional electoral system. In an Israel with a less dysfunctional method for electing a government, a political bomb-thrower like Ben-Gvir would not be in such a strong position. But the current system isn’t going to disappear just because he is making it work for him.
Nevertheless, for all of his fury at being dictated to by Menendez, Netanyahu is likely to try to avoid being put in such a position. If he has a right-wing/religious majority in his pocket after Nov. 1, expect him to try to double-cross the Religious Zionists. As he’s done in the past, he will likely reach out to one or more of the parties that have sworn never to sit in a government with him to join his coalition, thus allowing him to exclude Ben-Gvir from ministerial power.
Whether or not that happens, the huffing and puffing about Ben-Gvir’s compromising Israel’s reputation needs to be placed in perspective. The idea of having a party like Ra’am join a government was in some ways a realization of the Zionist dream of the Arab minority making its peace with the reality of a Jewish state and fully participating in its politics, rather than standing to the side and hoping for its destruction.
Yet the agenda of Abbas’s party, which wants a state run according to Muslim religious law, is far more radical than anything Ben-Gvir advocates. If Abbas’s decision to join forces with Lapid and Bennett can be considered as proof that he has transcended his political origins, why can’t Ben-Gvir’s attempts to distance himself from Kahanist ideology be treated in the same manner?
The problem is not just hypocrisy. Articles like the one in Axios that broke the news about the confrontation with Menendez referred to Ben-Gvir as a “Jewish supremacist,” a not-so-subtle way to associate him with violent anti-Semitic, radical right-wingers in the United States.
The stands that are cited by those who think a coalition with him would be illegitimate include his support for construction in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and the right to live in Jewish-owned property in Jerusalem neighborhoods that Arabs demand be Jew-free. Yet those are entirely legitimate positions that a great many Israelis understandably consider to be very much in the mainstream.
Even if you think, as many understandably do, that the Knesset would be better off without Ben-Gvir in it, Israelis need not atone for the sin of voting for him in the expectation that he will be an uncompromising defender of Jewish rights. The message to American critics of Israel should be clear: If you thought the inclusion in Israel’s governing coalition of an Islamist party that openly advocates for the end of Zionism and the Jewish state in its platform was a good idea, then you have no business lecturing anyone about Ben-Gvir.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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