Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of Israel’s most stalwart—and passionate—supporters, dropped a bombshell last week when he warned former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against forming a coalition government with Israel’s far-right Religious National Party, one of whose leaders is the outspoken attorney-politician Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Mendendez’s bold statement raises the question as to whether Israeli politicians may also exercise their right to suggest whom American political parties should allow into their coalitions.
Menendez reportedly told Netanyahu that including Ben-Gvir in Israel’s next government would threaten U.S.-Israel relations. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has the power to make that danger real.
Menendez’s warning was echoed by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who urged Israeli politicians to “ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir.” Neither Sherman nor Menendez specified any Ben-Gvir views to which they object.
Ben-Gvir hasn’t made Netanyahu’s decision easy: He has a reputation for making statements against Israeli Arabs—such as suggesting deportation of those who attack Israeli soldiers, which proposal some consider racist.
This past weekend, when Arab rioters attacked a prayer service that Ben-Gvir was attending in Jerusalem, he drew a pistol and waved it at stone-throwers.
On the other hand, Ben-Gvir swears he is not racist—that indeed he is an anti-racist, fighting anti-Semitic instigation within the boundaries of Israel’s “homeland” by the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with the aim of defeating them “just as the United States defeated Al-Qaeda.”
Netanyahu’s decision on Ben-Gvir is likely to come soon, since Israel’s next national election—its fifth in just four years—happens on November 1. Because so many parties are vying for control of the Knesset, top politicians will almost surely face huge challenges in negotiating a ruling coalition partnership … once again.
Currently, Netanyahu’s Likud Party looks likely to capture the most seats in the Knesset—projected at 32—but nowhere near enough to clinch a 61-seat majority. Which means in order to govern, Netanyahu may well be forced to include the National Religious Party, which with 13 seats is likely to rank as the nation’s third-strongest party.
Americans should note that in a rough-and-tumble Israeli election, one thing is fairly certain: About 62% of voters will support right-leaning parties.
This percentage has grown substantially over recent years, mostly at the expense of the political center (now about 24% of voters) and the left (now about 11%).
Even so, Netanyahu’s path to the premiership is not certain: Some polls show him only able to muster 59 or 60 seats, short of a majority—throwing more uncertainty into the mix. While right-leaning voters are a clear majority in Israel, their division among the various right-wing parties still makes it difficult to form a right-leaning government.
In other words, if Netanyahu’s only path to governance is by coalescing with Ben-Gvir and the National Religious Party, he is going to do it. (And so, we believe, would Sen. Menendez.)
Contrast Israel’s voter sentiments with those in the United States in the runup to the midterm elections on Nov. 8. We can safely say American voters are generally split between left and right, with most voting in the center. While coastal states lean left and the country’s center leans right, no one party shows a clear advantage.
Indeed, Democrats’ margin of control in the Senate is just a single vote. Its majority in the 435-member House of Representatives is just eight—which could easily be swept away in the midterms.
Notably, one of the Democrat’s newest Senate members, Raphael Warnock, (D-Ga.) has accused Israel of being an apartheid state—clearly a falsehood and clearly anti-Semitic on the grounds of demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state.
How receptive would President Biden—or Sen. Menendez—be to Israeli suggestions that Democrats exclude Warnock from their governing coalition?
Likewise, six members of the Democratic “Squad” in the House—made up of Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, Pressley, Bowman and Bush—have all made anti-Israel (and many openly anti-Semitic) statements.
Should Israeli Knesset members recommend that Squad members be disavowed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or stripped of their membership on key House committees?
While Sen. Menendez’ support of Israel is respected and highly valued, his attempt to influence the will of Israeli voters and the composition of Israel’s government is misplaced and unwelcome.
Likewise, while a handful of American politicians in both the House and Senate have made clearly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks, Israeli members of the Knesset have rightly resisted making recommendations to either political party as to who should serve in the United States government.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.