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Warning Netanyahu about Ben Gvir harms U.S.-Israel relations

Sens. Menendez and Sherman may have meant well, but they could enable a Democratic Party turn against Israel.

Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit speaks on election night at the Religious Zionist Party headquarters in Modi'in, March 23, 2021. Photo by Sraya Diamant/Flash90.
Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit speaks on election night at the Religious Zionist Party headquarters in Modi'in, March 23, 2021. Photo by Sraya Diamant/Flash90.
Farley Weiss
Farley Weiss is chairman of the Israel Heritage Foundation (IHF) and former president of the National Council of Young Israel.

Polls indicate that there are only two likely scenarios for the upcoming election in Israel: A narrow right-wing government headed by the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu or another election. There appears to be virtually no chance that Yair Lapid, or Benny Gantz for that matter, can put together a coalition.

Moreover, because Gantz, Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman have indicated they and their parties will not sit in a government led by Netanyahu, it seems Netanyahu will need the support of the Religious Zionist Party of which Itamar Ben Gvir is a member. In other words, if Netanyahu wins the election, it is very likely that Ben Gvir will be a cabinet minister.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made it clear that he opposes the inclusion of Ben Gvir in a Netanyahu-led coalition. He reportedly told Netanyahu that, if Ben Gvir is included, it would endanger the U.S.-Israel alliance. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) followed up and urged Israeli political leaders—obviously referring only to Netanyahu—“to ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state.” Sherman went on to say, “These extremists undermine Israel’s interests, which I and my colleagues have worked hard to strengthen.”

It is noteworthy that neither Menendez nor Sherman cited any specific current position that makes Ben Gvir unacceptable to them. Ben Gvir has argued that he has left his most extremist beliefs behind, as can be seen by his former party colleagues Michael Ben Ari and Baruch Marzel’s opposition to him.

The question is, why the concern about Ben Gvir? For example, in his recent U.N. speech, Jordan’s King Abdullah falsely claimed “Christianity is under attack in Jerusalem.” In July 2017, the Jordanian parliament held a moment of silence for terrorists who murdered two Israeli police officers on the Temple Mount. Jordan harbors Ahlam Ahmad al-Tamimi, who murdered 15 people and wounded 150—including Americans Judith Greenbaum (who was pregnant) and Malki Roth— in a terror attack and refuses to extradite her to the U.S. Menendez and Sherman do not appear to have expressed any significant concern that Jordan’s refusal to extradite Tamimi might hurt U.S.-Jordan relations. I have met Judith Greenbaum’s husband and spoken to Malki Roth’s father. Their pain is still palpable.

If radical views concern Menendez and Sherman, then they need look no further than their anti-Semitic colleagues Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) who both support the BDS movement. Tlaib opposes Israel’s existence. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) previously took away committee jobs from former Republican congressman Steven King due to his white supremacist views. It is frightening that not one single Democratic senator or representative has called for the removal of Tlaib and Omar’s committee assignments.

In June, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said that President Joe Biden “might be the last pro-Israel Democratic president” because the base of the Democratic party is moving against Israel. Actually, Biden himself was far better on Israel when he was a senator, as can be seen in his adamant support for the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, than he has been as president.

Moreover, Menendez and Sherman’s comments about Ben Gvir came after both men had already begun to water down their support for Israel. In May 2021, while over 4,000 missiles were shot at Israel, Menendez said he was “deeply troubled by Israeli military actions that resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians.” Sherman went from opposing the Iran nuclear deal under Obama to not only opposing former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, but even supporting Biden’s quest to rejoin it, a position that Menendez does not share with Sherman.

I have personally met Menendez and Sherman, and they have been strong friends of Israel. Their comments do not just weaken that friendship, but could potentially provide a foundation for a massive turn against Israel should Netanyahu become prime minister and Ben Gvir a member of his cabinet.

In 2019, when Netanyahu brokered a deal to merge Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party with the Jewish Home Party, three major Democratic presidential candidates—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and current Democratic candidate for Governor of Texas Beto O’Rourke—called Netanyahu a “racist” despite the fact that the left-leaning Israeli Supreme Court determined that Otzma is not a racist party and has approved the candidacy of Ben Gvir.

The warnings from Menendez and Sherman could turn the Democratic Party against Israel much sooner than Thomas Friedman predicted. If this happens, then the Democrats will likely see a massive drop in Jewish support, much like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. The Jewish community cares about Israel and Republican support for Israel has never been stronger. It is possible that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is the most pro-Israel governor in the country, could get over 50% of the Jewish vote in his reelection bid, as Trump received over 40% of Florida’s Jewish vote in the 2020 presidential election.

The rise in anti-Semitism in America has corresponded with a rise in anti-Israel sentiment. If Ben Gvir becomes a minister, then the attack on Israel by “friends” like Menendez and Sherman will pale in comparison to the attacks by those who are not friends. Menendez and Sherman may think they are giving Netanyahu friendly advice, but what they are doing is dangerous for the U.S.-Israel relationship and could lead to a massive rise in anti-Israel sentiment and, with it, American anti-Semitism.

Farley Weiss is Chairman of the Israel Heritage Foundation (IHF) and former president of the National Council of Young Israel, as well as an intellectual property attorney for the law firm of Weiss & Moy. The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily representative of NCYI.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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