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Desperate Netanyahu openly embraces Jewish extremists

The decision to ally with the Jewish equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan lays bare where the Israeli right plans to head next

Middle East Eye – 11 March 2019

After a decade of coalition governments in Israel led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the language needed to describe them has necessarily grown more extreme.

At first, they were right-wing. Then ultra-nationalist. Recently, analysts have started to talk of Netanyahu leading a far-right coalition. Now it seems we may have to go further still.

Should he win Israel’s election in April, Netanyahu’s next government will be one that openly embraces the terrorist right.

Last week, the Central Elections Committee, a body overseeing the election process and dominated by the main political factions, gave the green light for Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) to run for the Israeli parliament.

That has shocked many observers, because the party is justifiably described as a Jewish version of the Ku Klux Klan.

But Otzma Yehudit won’t only be expecting to win seats in the Knesset. Thanks to Netanyahu, it now has a good chance of becoming a partner in the next government.

Jewish supremacists

The party, founded six years ago, is a political refuge for a group of disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. He and his followers are usually termed anti-Arab racists, but nowadays that applies to a significant swath of political opinion in Israel. They are better described as violent Jewish supremacists.

They back a Greater Israel that includes the occupied territories, all of which they want free of Palestinians. The leaders openly defend and associate with extremists within the settler movement who use terror and violence as a way to secure that very goal.

Last year, Otzma Yehudit’s leader, Michael Ben-Ari, called for violence against Israel’s 1.7-million-strong Palestinian minority, who have second-class citizenship, calling them “a fifth column” that was “waging war against us”.

He warned them: “If you speak against a Jew, you’re not going to be alive … You’re not going to be deported or have your citizenship revoked. You’re not going to be alive! You’ll be put in front of a firing squad, taken down – this is what Arabs understand.”

Ben-Ari has done so little to conceal his support for violence that the US issued a travel ban against him in 2012.

In response to the election committee’s decision, Issawi Frej, an Israeli-Palestinian member of the Knesset, said: “Now our prime minister is laying out the red carpet before the man [Ben-Ari] who said a simple phrase: ‘Kahane was right.'”

Pact with the devil

Netanyahu’s pact with Otzma Yehudit last month was designed to get him out of an electoral hole.

Unsure of how his voters will respond to the indictments he now faces for bribery and fraud, and up against a group of military generals in a popular new party, Netanyahu needs to win over as many right-wing votes as possible – wherever they come from.

Although there are technical reasons why Netanyahu needs Otzma Yehudit, he clearly believes that the political climate he has helped to foster over the past decade has made it acceptable to include these Jewish supremacists in his prospective government.

That was underscored this week when Netanyahu reiterated on social media that Israel was “not a state of all its citizens” – that it did not belong to the fifth of its citizens who are Palestinian but exclusively to the Jewish people around the world.

Netanyahu’s reliance on Otzma Yehudit follows a recent split in another extreme party in his coalition, Jewish Home, that is close to the fanatical religious wing of the settlers. Jewish Home’s political “stars”, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, both government ministers, recently left to create yet another far-right party called the New Right.

Need for extra votes

What was left of the Jewish Home party risked falling just short of the electoral threshold, which needs to be surpassed before a party wins seats in the Knesset. That would result in all its votes being lost, and thereby provide a boost to Netanyahu’s chief opponent, Blue and White, a party led by Benny Gantz and other generals.

Gantz may then be in a position to create an alternative governing coalition made up of the right and centre, and supported informally by a bloc of Israeli-Palestinian parties.

So Netanyahu threw caution to the wind and arm-twisted Jewish Home into making an electoral pact with Otzma Yehudit. Together, they hope to hoover up enough votes to gain a clutch of seats and thereby prop up another government led by Netanyahu’s Likud party.

In fact, Otzma Yehudit is the successor to Kahane’s original party, Kach, which briefly entered the Israeli parliament in the 1980s.

Then, the electoral threshold was much lower, and Kahane was able to win a single seat for himself. But his explicit anti-Arab racism and calls for violence were so discomfiting to the other parties that they shunned him in the Knesset.

Given the added exposure, however, Kahane’s popularity grew. With the prospect of Kach winning several seats in the next election, the parliament amended the election laws to prevent the party from standing. Kahane was assassinated in the US shortly afterwards, in 1990.

When one of his followers, Baruch Goldstein, shot more than 150 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994, killing 29, Kach was outlawed as a terrorist organisation.

Manipulating the legal system

But Kach never went away. It didn’t even go properly underground. It flourished in many of the settlements deep in the occupied Palestinian territories, and its former leaders became household names.

The settler youths it cultivated torched olive groves, then mosques, and more recently Palestinian families. The Israeli police and intelligence services made little effort to find the culprits.

But while its violence continued, its leaders grew more sophisticated in the ways they learned to manipulate Israel’s political and legal systems.

Ben-Ari’s deputy, Itamar Ben-Gvir, became a lawyer, finding that it was easy to exploit the reticence of the criminal justice system to prosecute Jews who harm Palestinians.

Related “charities” have promoted Kach’s brand of Jewish supremacism and terrorism, including Lehava, which uses intimidation and violence to stop Jews and Palestinians from dating or even mixing.

Threatened with a noose

Since Kach formally reinvented itself as Otzma Yehudit ahead of the 2013 election, it’s been looking for a way back into parliament. But to the evident delight of its leadership, its brand of anti-Arab racism has in the meantime become so mainstream that Netanyahu can afford to offer it a place in the bosom of the next government.

Netanyahu’s backing for these Jewish supremacists is a clear signal about where the Israeli right plans to push the country next. The evidence has been building for some time that the Netanyahu right has moved remarkably close to Kahane’s positions of three decades ago.

One of Kahane’s stated priorities then was to remove the representatives of Israel’s 1.7 million Palestinian citizens from the Israeli parliament. He regarded them as traitors, a Trojan horse for the larger Palestinian cause that could undermine Israel as a Jewish state from within.

On one occasion in 1988, Kahane publicly threatened an Israeli-Palestinian legislator with a noose.

‘Terrorists’ in the Knesset

Such views – and threats – are now entirely normalised inside Netanyahu’s government. Avigdor Lieberman, until recently Netanyahu’s defence minister and someone who himself spent his formative political years in Kach, has repeatedly sought to cast the Palestinian Knesset members as traitors deserving the death penalty.

Last year he called Ayman Odeh, the joint head of the Palestinian parties, a “terrorist”. He has condemned the legislators as “war criminals” working “to destroy us from within”. He had earlier argued that they should be “executed”.

Lieberman helped Netanyahu drive through legislation to raise the electoral threshold in 2014, in a barely concealed effort to bar Palestinian parties from gaining any seats in the parliament.

When that move backfired, after Palestinian parties combined to form the Joint List, the government responded by passing an Expulsion Law, which empowers a three-quarters majority – in effect, of Jewish legislators – to expel a representative for holding opinions they do not like.

That threat is intended to serve as a sword hanging over Palestinian lawmakers, to prevent them from speaking out on key issues, such as the structural violence of the occupation or the systemic discrimination faced by Israel’s non-Jewish population.

How Netanyahu himself views the representation of Palestinian citizens was illustrated starkly on the day of the 2015 election, when he warned that his government’s survival was “in danger”. He clarified: “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

‘Citizens, not lepers’

Under pressure from then-US President Barack Obama, he apologised for his remark, but he has already restated that sentiment in the early stages of this campaign.

Netanyahu suggested that a Gantz-led government could betray the country by relying on informal support from Palestinian legislators. The prime minister characterised this electoral alliance as “an obstructive bloc” that would be “working to eliminate the state of Israel”.

Netanyahu was thereby trying to create a false equivalence between his move to forge an alliance with the terror-supporting Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit and Gantz’s possible reliance on Israel’s main Palestinian parties.

This incitement barely attracted attention, apart from a former Israeli-Palestinian Supreme Court judge, Salim Joubran, who reminded Netanyahu: “These [Palestinian] citizens are legitimate, not invalid, contemptible, or lepers.”

Marches demanding expulsion

Efforts to cast the elected representatives of Israel’s large Palestinian minority as traitors are intended to send a message that the Palestinian public is equally disloyal.

That would have been welcomed by Kahane. Under the slogan “They Must Go”, he argued that there was no place for Palestinians either in Israel or in the occupied territories.

Shortly after he entered parliament in 1984, he staged a provocative march to Umm al-Fahm, a large Palestinian town in Israel that lies close to the West Bank, to demand that its inhabitants emigrate. Police blocked his way, and government leaders protested that his actions were “shameful” and “dangerous”.

In recent years, his disciples, led by Baruch Marzel, have held similar marches to Umm al-Fahm and other Palestinian communities in Israel. These marches, however, have been approved by the courts and are provided with a police escort.

Accusations of disloyalty

For more than a decade, Kahane’s message has been echoed from within the government. Lieberman has heavily promoted a “static transfer” programme, in which communities such as Umm al-Fahm – and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens – would find themselves cast outside Israel through the redrawing of borders. They would be stripped of their citizenship.

After Lieberman announced his plan, it was backed by the right-wing prime minister of the time, Ariel Sharon. More recently, the proposal has won support from Netanyahu.

Lieberman has also been at the forefront of a popular Israeli discourse that demands Palestinian citizens demonstrate their loyalty to a Jewish state – or more precisely, a state that abides by the far-right positions of Netanyahu’s government.

By those standards, Palestinian citizens are bound to fail and appear disloyal.

It is within that framework that the Central Elections Committee, while approving Otzma Yehudit, banned a major Palestinian party, Balad, from running in April’s election.

It did so on the grounds that Balad opposes Israel being a Jewish state and demands it become a state belonging to all its citizens, or a liberal democracy, which would give equal rights to Palestinian and Jewish citizens.

Incitement over forest fires

Constant incitement against Palestinians has come from the prime minister down.

Two years ago, for example, Netanyahu accused Palestinian citizens of being behind forest fires that raged across Israel, in what he claimed was an attempt to burn down the state. This smear dominated front pages, even though authorities never produced any evidence for it.

But it has contributed to an intensifying racism shared among much of the Israeli Jewish public, as consistently demonstrated in polls.

According to one in December, 88 percent would object to their son befriending a girl belonging to Israel’s Palestinian minority, and 90 percent would oppose their daughter being friends with an Arab boy. Nearly half do not want a Palestinian citizen as a neighbour.

Annexing the West Bank

Meanwhile, in the occupied territories, Kahane’s calls for Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank and at the hyper-sensitive holy site of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem are now a staple of the Netanyahu government’s discourse.

Ministers such as Bennett and Shaked, as well as senior members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, openly speak about seeking to annex large swaths of the West Bank.

At the same time, Al-Aqsa Mosque – which Israeli Jews call Temple Mount – has become ever-more a flashpoint, as the right focuses its attention on asserting a stronger Jewish presence there and tightening Israel’s control over the site. Tensions there have again risen in recent days.

Were he alive today, Kahane would be delighted at how much influence he has exerted over the subsequent period – not only on popular discourse in Israel, but on the strategic aims of Israeli governments.

And now, his disciples in Otzma Yehudit have a chance – care of Netanyahu – to carry on Kahane’s work from inside the next government and to accelerate the pace of change.

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