(February 27, 2019 / JNS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to cut a deal with Bayit Yehudi, and its subsequent temporary union with right-wing political parties National Union and Otzma Yehudit, has created a political storm, being called “foul” and worse by some. And with others calling it a “reprehensible political party with racist roots” and an “anti-Arab group,” a number of Jewish American organizations have come out against the deal involving Otzma, which they consider an extremist and racist party, and which they don’t want to see as part of any possible future government coalition.
Otzma Yehudit is an offshoot of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane’s former Kach Party, which was banned from the Knesset because of its racist views and push for the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel.
But is the merger as bad as it is hyped up to be?
According to Yonatan Freeman in the political-science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “This is a technical kind of join-up. It’s about the polls, not the policies,” he told JNS.
Freeman explained that this union with Otzma Yehudit was a necessary move by Bayit Yehudi because it has been sinking in the polls.
Freeman emphasized that Netanyahu never actually called for Otzma Yehudit to join up with any specific party, but that he simply wanted to unite the right due to a fear that in the upcoming April elections, Israel may see a higher percentage of people voting for parties that may not pass the threshold, which would ultimately be a waste of important, potentially game-changing votes.
Still, not everyone cares about the reasoning behind Netanyahu’s decision.
The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, among others, have all expressly stated their objections in one way or another against any potential political merger or deal.
The American Jewish Committee angrily wrote that the views of Otzma Yehudit “do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”
The 13 principles that make up the party’s platform show that it’s not entirely what it is being accused of, and that while some of its points are deeply problematic for many, it still represents views held by those who vote for mainstream parties.
Some believe that it may have made more sense to create a pact with the New Right Party led by Naftali Bennett, but Netanyahu is known to have a longstanding beef with his former chief of staff and, according to some reports, is working to undermine Bennet and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked before the elections.
Bennett himself has come out against the deal, saying, “people who see Kahane as a model are unworthy of sitting in the Knesset, but those who undermine Israel are, too.”
Later, in response to the left’s reaction to his comment, he clarified his words and said, “I reject the demand of the left to prevent representatives of Otzma Yehudit from running for the Knesset, while relying on Arab parties that undermine the existence of the state.”
Either way, Netanyahu understood that the fracture within the right has hurt the country for many years, and he realized he needs to unify it in order to counter the new momentum by the Blue and White union by Israel Resilience party head Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and Yesh Atid Party head Yair Lapid.
‘An attempt to get back in the middle’
In general, American Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have stood by Israel’s side throughout the years without getting heavily involved, if at all, in internal politics. So why now?
According to Freeman, there are two main reasons. The first is that America is now in the beginning stages of a heated election season. And AIPCA, he explained, is concerned that the perception of Israel as being too pro-Trump might influence how AIPAC is perceived as well.
“This is an attempt to get back in the middle,” Freeman said of AIPAC.
The second reason, he noted, is that a good number of Israelis are fretting over the separation that exists between the Jewish Diaspora and Israel, and are clamoring for an easing of tensions.
AIPAC sees this as an opportunity to bridge that divide and get involved in Israeli domestic politics, even in a minimal way.
But according to Freeman, “when push comes to shove, this will not affect [Israel’s] relations with AIPAC,” though it might influence it in two ways. First, the type of discussions and talking points may change. Second, internally in America, there might be a backlash from Jews who don’t agree with all of Israel’s policies.
Jonathan Rynhold, the deputy head of the department of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, emphasized to JNS that Netanyahu did this for political reasons and not ideological ones.
Rynhold believes that Netanyahu made the move because he is desperate due to a possible a pending indictment against him for charges of corruption, as well as the political threat presented by Gantz and Lapid. “The Netanyahu of five years ago would have decried this [inclusion of Otzma Yehudit] as terrible.”
He firmly believes that the Otzma Yehudit representative will not “have direct influence and probably not even direct representation in the next Knesset.”
Freeman agreed and sought to allay the fears of many, assuring that “they won’t be setting policy.”