Israeli Election will be a Referendum on Netanyahu

Last Thursday, the Israeli political parties submitted their final list of Knesset candidates for the April 9 election. The deadline ended weeks of feverish maneuvering between party heads to gain the slightest advantage among voters who, according to opinion polls, are roughly evenly divided between supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his opponents.

The election was precipitated by the fact that Netanyahu’s coalition had eroded to a bare majority of just 61 Knesset seats, and was no longer able to pass the necessary legislation for the government to continue functioning. Netanyahu’s center-right coalition had always been subject to friction between the religious parties and the secularist Yisroel Beiteinu party, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, particularly over the issue continuing the deferment from army service for yeshiva students. But when Lieberman resigned as Defense Minister on November 14, 2018, removing his party’s five Knesset votes from the coalition, it was clear that Netanyahu’s government, as it was then constituted, could not survive for long.

For the past 40 years, the defining issue of Israeli politics, separating left from right, has been the question of whether Israel should permanently settle and keep the territories it captured during the 1967 Six Day War, or keep trying to reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and their allies over the disputed territory and other outstanding issues in the century-old Israeli-Arab dispute.

FADING EXPECTATIONS

Left wing expectations for reaching a comprehensive peace settlement peaked in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo peace accords and the start of US-sponsored direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But after another 25 years of Palestinian terrorism and bad faith in negotiations, relatively few Israeli voters believe that a negotiated settlement is still possible, at least with the current generation of the Palestinian leaders.

As expectations have faded for any permanent solution being reached in the near term for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the main point of contention within the Israeli politics today is whether to allow Netanyahu to continue his tenure as prime minister. Netanyahu’s pro-right policies support continued Israeli settlement of the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, overcoming opposition from the international community and the Obama administration, and resisting sometimes intense US pressure for negotiated concessions to the Palestinians.

Israeli voter support for the left-wing parties has withered with the persistence of terrorist attacks combined with the failure of the past 20 years of negotiations with the Palestinians to show any progress towards a final agreement. In recent election cycles, voters have lent their support to a series of upstart centrist parties which promised to break the national left-right political stalemate and focus on long-neglected internal needs in Israeli society, but none of them have been able to find a leader with enough gravitas and political experience to defeat Netanyahu running for prime minister. Kadima, Yesh Atid, Hatnuah and Kulanu have all failed to live up to their promises to provide a broadly acceptable alternative to Netanyahu’s experienced leadership.

PARALLELS TO THE POLITICAL ATTACKS ON PRESIDENT TRUMP

The political alignment in Israel today has parallels to the situation in the United States, where the mainstream media and opposition Democrats are determined to do whatever it takes to discredit and remove Donald Trump from office. Similarly, the Israeli opposition has just created a new political front, called the Blue and White (Kachol Lavan, representing the colors of the Israeli flag), led by former army chief of staff General Benny Gantz, who has no prior government experience. It includes the struggling Yesh Atid centrist party, led by Yair Lapid, who previously served as Netanyahu’s finance minister, as well as two other retired army chiefs of staff. They are Moshe Ya’alon, who previously served as Netanyahu’s defense minister before forming his own Telem party, and Gabi Ashkenazi, who, like Gantz, has no prior government experience.

Several weeks before agreeing to run on a joint candidate list with Yesh Atid, Gantz founded his own political party called Israel Resilience. The Blue and White front’s entire political raison d’etre appears to be the removal of Netanyahu from power. The announcement of the front’s creation focused entirely on the division of the political spoils among its leaders. The merger included a rotation agreement which calls for Gantz to serve as prime minister until January 2, 2022, and then turn the post over to Lapid.

The agreement between Lapid, Gantz and Ya’alon is temporary, and explicitly permits them to go their own ways when the time comes for the next Knesset election. The agreement also fails to define the front’s positions on such vital issues facing Israel today, such as whether it supports the formation of an independent Palestinian state.

Last week, Netanyahu took advantage of Gantz’s notable silence on the Palestinian issue to accuse the former general of secretly planning for an extensive Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank if he should win the April election. He said that the Blue and White front’s leadership is made up of “left-wing generals who pretend to be right-wing,” comparing them to the “leftist generals” who helped Yitzchok Rabin launch the “Oslo disaster.”

GANTZ DREW UP A WITHDRAWAL PLAN FIVE YEARS AGO

Netanyahu said that Gantz drew up a detailed plan for such a withdrawal, in cooperation with retired US general John Allen, during the 2013-2014 peace talks organized by Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry. Gantz, as the army chief of staff, was assigned by Netanyahu and Ya’alon, who was then defense minister, to work with General Allen on a joint US-Israeli security plan for the West Bank that could be implemented if the negotiations made enough progress to make an Israeli withdrawal conceivable.

According to a report in Haaretz, neither Netanyahu nor Ya’alon had wanted Gantz and Allen to come up with a workable plan and were caught by surprise by the depth and detail of the security proposal that was actually developed. Netanyahu and Ya’alon ordered Gantz to halt his collaboration with Allen on the security proposal, which was shelved when the Kerry-sponsored peace talks collapsed due to a lack of good faith on the Palestinian side.

Last week, Netanyahu tweeted a video giving his version of that incident. It claimed Gantz “supported the establishment of a Palestinian state and abandoning Israel in the hands of an international force.

“Benny Gantz, along with Obama officials, prepared a plan for an almost complete Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.

“Fact: Prime Minister Netanyahu found out about the plans of Obama officials and Gantz, strongly opposed it, instructed Gantz to stop immediately, and halted Obama’s pressure,” the clip said, while making no mention of Ya’alon’s role in that incident.

CHALLENGING NETANYAHU’S CREDIBILITY

Ya’alon broke with Netanyahu after the prime minister gave his portfolio as defense minister to Avigdor Lieberman. He is now a senior member of Gantz’s new party, and quickly came to Gantz’s defense over the plan he developed in cooperation with Allen. He condemned Netanyahu’s video clip as part of an “industry of lies… I was there. The ‘lefty’ who agreed to give up the Jordan Valley and gave the instruction to cooperate with the Kerry-Allen plan was not Benny Gantz, but the prime minister. Come on, enough is enough.”

Blue and White leaders are campaigning on the claim that Netanyahu has not lived up to his promise to protect Israel’s security against persistent terrorist attacks along the Gaza border and that he failed to resist pressure from the Obama administration for more concessions to the Palestinians.

Shortly after the Blue and White faction was announced, Netanyahu said that the choice facing Israeli voters in April is now “clearer than ever.” They could be led by a “weak, left-wing party” supported by Arab Knesset members with no loyalty to Israel, or they could choose “a strong, right-wing government under my leadership.”

Meanwhile, the Zionist Union, the centrist political faction which was created by the merger of Labor and Hatnuah before the 2015 Knesset election, appears to be on the verge of political collapse. Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni was publicly dumped by Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay a few weeks ago, dissolving their faction agreement and forcing Livni, whose popularity with voters has plummeted, to announce last week that she would be sitting out the April election. Polls predict that the election will result in Labor’s loss of more than half its current strength of 24 Knesset seats.

TURMOIL IN THE ISRAELI RIGHT WING

There has also been considerable recent turmoil within Netanyahu’s right-wing base of support. In recent elections, the National Union coalition of small pro-settlement parties ran on a joint candidate list with the remnants of the old-Mizrachi/National Religious Party, which had almost collapsed in the wake of the Gaza Disengagement in 2005. Running under the leadership of Naftoli Bennett, the renamed Jewish Home Party reached a high of 12 Knesset seats in the 2013 election, but two years later, in the 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu was successful in poaching a sizable percentage of National Home’s voters, souring his once-close relationship with Bennett.

At the start of the current election cycle, Bennett decided that he and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked would do better at the polls if they publicly separated themselves from the Mizrachi-Religious Zionists by creating their own New Right party, with no religious affiliation.

Bennett, who still serves as Netanyahu’s Minister of Education, has begun attacking the prime minister from the right at cabinet meetings. He said that “Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump are in agreement on launching the plan to establish a Palestinian state immediately after the elections. They are coordinated not to present the plan before the elections so as not to make it difficult for Netanyahu, but a day or two after the elections the plan for the establishment of a Palestinian state on 90% of the West Bank and the division of Yerushalayim will be presented.”

On Monday, Bennett interpreted a comment by Jared Kushner that the peace plan that the Trump administration’s piece plan will focus on the “redrawing of boundaries and resolving final status issues” between Israel and the Palestinians to mean that “the day after the elections the Americans will push the Netanyahu-Lapid-Gantz government to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state along Route 6 [the north-south superhighway built next to the Green Line], to agree to the division of Yerushalayim, and Netanyahu will be forced to acquiesce.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party denied Bennett’s accusation and said that it was Bennett who was seeking to join up with Lapid and Gantz after the election.

JEWISH HOME PARTY IN JEOPARDY

Bennett’s decision to join with Shaked to create their own party posed a serious problem for the small right-wing parties which remained behind in the Jewish Home. There was real fear that Jewish Home might not be able to attract the minimum number of votes required to maintain a faction in the Knesset, undermining its mission as the main advocate for the interests of the Religious Zionist and pro-settler movements in Israeli politics.

According to Israeli election law, a party must obtain a minimum of 3.25% of the total vote to qualify as a faction in the Knesset. If the party does not reach that minimum, the votes it received are thrown out and do not affect the outcome of the election.

That is what happened in 2015 to the joint front which consisted of the Yachad party, which was led by former Shas party chairman Eli Yishai, and the right wing Otzma Yisroel party, whose anti-Arab proposals have been condemned by many mainstream Israeli political leaders and in the Israeli media as racist.

In the 2015 Knesset election, the joint Yachad-Otzma Yehudit list got 2.97% of the total vote, 0.28% short of the minimum, so it was not awarded any Knesset seats. As a result, all of the 125,158 right wing and religious votes were wasted and went into the garbage. Had it met the vote threshold for entering the Knesset, the Yachad-Otzma Yehudit faction would have undoubtedly entered Netanayahu’s government, and its three Knesset votes would have made Netanyahu’s job of assembling and maintaining a stable coalition that much easier.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN US AND ISRAELI ELECTIONS

A key difference between Israeli and American elections is that Israelis cast their vote for a party. When all the votes are counted up, the 120 seats in the Knesset are divided up by party in proportion to the number votes each party received.

For example, if one party received 25% of the total national vote, it would be entitled to 30 seats in new Knesset. That means that only the first 30 people on the candidate list the party submitted last week would become members of the new Knesset, excluding number 31 or greater on the list.

The order in which the candidates appear on the list is crucial. In larger parties, such as Likud or Labor, the order of candidates is determined by a nationwide primary restricted to party members. The party candidates who win the most votes in the primary election are placed near the top of the party’s list, and if the party joins the government coalition, they are first in line for available cabinet positions. In smaller parties, the list is established by an agreement between the party’s bosses or a central committee.

The Israeli system maximizes the power of party leaders who largely control the candidate lists and makes it vital for their party to surpass the 3.25% minimum vote to achieve the power that only comes with controlling seats in the Knesset.

KNESSET VOTE EXPECTED TO BE CLOSE

The importance of surpassing that vote minimum is magnified in this election, because of the very close balance of power between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu Knesset alliances which are likely to emerge in the aftermath of the April election. According to current polling, Likud and Netanyahu’s most likely right-wing and religious coalition partners are projected to win a total of approximately 60 Knesset seats, which is the threshold Netanyahu must exceed in order to form the next government.

Every extra Knesset seat that Netanyahu’s coalition partners can win will make it easier for him to form a stable new coalition government.

According to current polls, after the April election, the anti-Netanyahu forces would fall about a dozen votes short of being able to form a Knesset majority of their own unless they break longstanding precedent by inviting the Israeli-Arab parties to join their coalition. However, by preventing Netanyahu from assembling a viable Knesset majority, his opponents would be able to block the prime minister from forming a new government. The resulting political standoff could only be resolved by the formation of an inherently unstable national unity government, or by calling for another Knesset election in the hope that it would yield a clear winner.

LAPID SAYS WHAT HIS FACTION WILL OR WON’T DO

Yair Lapid said Monday that if current polls are accurate, and the Blue and White party gets more votes than the Likud in the April 9th election, the prime minister would have no choice but to step down as Likud leader, clearing the way for the formation of a national unity government with whoever replaces Netanyahu as the chairman of Likud.

Historically, however, a Likud electoral defeat has not necessarily meant the replacement of its party leader. In the 2009 Knesset election, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party narrowly defeated the Netanyahu-led Likud. Afterward, Livni was unable to reach an agreement with the religious parties to create a coalition majority. That gave Netanyahu, who remained at the helm of Likud despite its defeat, the opportunity to form his own successful alternative coalition.

Lapid denied suggestions from the Netanyahu camp that Blue and White would seek Israeli-Arab Knesset votes to create the majority it would need to form its own coalition, or to prevent Netanyahu from assembling his own new government. “We won’t form a government with the Arab parties. We’ll turn to the Likud [when] it becomes the post-Netanyahu Likud,” Lapid said.

“Overall, the Likud is an important national party with important people, and its Knesset slate isn’t bad, and we would definitely love to have it [in our coalition].”

Lapid also denied that Blue and White would rely on Arab votes to prevent Netanyahu from forming his own alternative government coalition. “There is no such thing as a blocking majority,” Lapid insisted. “That’s something Bibi made up so he could say ‘they’re going to make a blocking majority with the Arabs.’”

GANTZ TRYING TO PLEASE EVERYONE

Gantz also claimed that his Blue and White coalition would be open to all, including “right-wingers, centrists, left-wingers… Sephardi and Ashkenazi, religious and secular, Jews and non-Jews.” He also claims that he views the chareidi community “as an inseparable party of Israeli society” and pledged “to cooperate with it on the basis of mutual respect.”

But New Right leader Ayelet Shaked called Gantz’s claim that his party is ideologically neutral “a sham,” noting that its candidate list contains 27 leftists and only three rightists.

“I do not understand why they are pretending and do not say simply, ‘We are a left-wing party,’” Shaked said.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu has been mindful of the failure of Yachad and Otzma Yehudit to enter the Knesset after the 2015 election because it failed to reach the 3.25% vote threshold. He made the unusual move of publicly urging the remaining leaders of the Jewish Home faction to find additional partners who could assure that it passes that threshold in the April election. Netanyahu also promised that those on that joint list would receive preferred treatment, including guaranteed cabinet portfolios, when he brings that joint faction into his next coalition government.

WHY YISHAI’S PARTY IS RUNNING ALONE

Eli Yishai became the leader of the Shas party in 1999, after Interior Minister Aryeh Deri was controversially tried, convicted and sent to jail for political corruption. Yishai led Shas under the guidance of Rav Ovadiah Yosef until 2013, when Deri became politically active once again. Deri won the subsequent power struggle with Yishai, prompting Yishai and his followers to form the breakaway Yachad party in 2015, which politically divided the Sephardic chareidi community.

Yachad was unable to reach an agreement with the leadership of Jewish Home, because Yachad’s rabbinic leader, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, refused to sign a public letter urging his followers to vote for the joint list, in part because that list included female candidates. A separate attempt by Yachad’s Rabbi Mazuz to negotiate an agreement with Shas spiritual leader Rabbi David Yosef on running a joint campaign failed when Shas refused to allow Yishai’s name to appear on their joint candidate list.

As a result, Yachad will run in the April election on its own, and it is unlikely to reach the 3.25% Knesset threshold. Yishai also reportedly rejected an offer by Netanyahu to make him a minister in the next government if Yishai would agree to sit out the April election and avoid splitting the right-wing Sephardic vote.

Yishai’s insistence on having Yachad make another doomed solo electoral run could have disastrous consequences if the wasted right-wing votes, which won’t count in the outcome, tip the balance against the interests of the entire chareidi community and Israel’s security in Netanyahu’s re-election.

THE DANGER TO ISRAEL’S RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY

There are many secularist leaders in opposition to Netanyahu, especially Yair Lapid. Should his Blue and White coalition gain power, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri warns that Yair Lapid would further intensify the secularist attacks on the Jewish nature of Israeli society, as well as the Torah positions on a wide range of moral issues.

“The Gantz-Lapid linkage is dangerous for Judaism,” Deri said. “Gantz, who supports civil marriage and Shabbos transportation, is running with Lapid whose hatred for Judaism and the religious is his trademark.”

The ouster of Netanyahu is likely to mean the end of the already imperiled draft exemption for yeshiva students, as well as vital government aid for yeshivos and large frum families. Netanyahu’s replacement would be unlikely to defend the exclusive authority of the Orthodox rabbinate on issues of Jewish identity and family status, or to enforce the public laws requiring Shabbos observance in Israeli society.

ANALYZING SECURITY RISKS

From a security point of view, if the right-wing votes wasted on Yachad lead to the ouster of Netanyahu as prime minister, it could weaken the trust and close ties Netanyahu has developed with the Trump White House.

A new prime minister might seek to renew peace talks to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank, endangering the future of hundreds of thousands of Jews now living in the large communities of what the world calls East Yerushalayim and just beyond the Green Line.

Netanyahu has invested much time and effort in developing friendly relations with other pro-American Arab regimes in the region, joining an informal alliance to halt the growing common threat posed by Iran. Netanyahu has also developed a trusting relationship with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has played a useful role in maintaining control over the continuing threat from the terrorist Hamas regime which controls Gaza.

Finally, Netanyahu and the Israeli military have been working diligently to limit the most serious immediate threat to Israel’s security – the growing Iranian military presence in Syria, combined with Iran’s rearmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has been conducting an ongoing air war on Iranian military installations and Hezbollah weapons depots, while being careful to avoid running afoul of the Russian military presence in Syria. Preventing Iran from establishing a permanent military base in Syria without starting an all-out war is a delicate and complicated operation. It is not clear that a new Israeli prime minister, even a former general, could successfully take over the task.

The bottom line for Israeli voters is that changing prime ministers in such difficult times should not be done lightly.

MEIR KAHANE’S ISRAELI POLITICAL HERITAGE

When Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home accepted Netanyahu’s proposal that they form a joint faction, it touched of a storm of criticism over the Otzma party’s controversial political history.

Otzma Yehudit, which translates in English to “Jewish Power,” was established on November 13, 2012, under the name Otzma LeYisroel, by National Union MKs Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari to run in the 2013 Knesset elections.

Eldad is a secular right-wing pro-settlement activist. Ben-Ari, who is Orthodox, entered Israeli electoral politics as a member of Menachem Begin’s Herut party and has expressed his admiration for the ideas of the late Meir Kahane.

Right-wing activist Baruch Marzel is another leader of the Otzma Yehudit party. Marzel is a resident of Chevron who honors the memory of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the killer of 29 Palestinians at the Me’oras Hamachpeilah in 1994. Marzel founded the Jewish National Front party which, in 2006, conducted a campaign against Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Binyomin Netanyahu, portraying them as “a danger to Israel.”

Other Otzma Yehudit party leaders include Bentzi Gopstein, who runs the Lehava organization which works to discourage intermarriages, and Itamar Ben Gvir, a lawyer known for defending right-wing Jewish activists who have been accused of committing acts of terrorism against Palestinians.

NETANYAU CRITICIZED FOR ELEVATING KAHANE SUPPORTERS

The close association of Ben-Ari and Marzel with Kahane’s controversial legacy turned the alliance between Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home into a lightning rod for critics who condemn Netanyahu for seeking to bring supporters of Kahane’s proposals back into the Knesset and his next government coalition.

Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in the US in the late 1960s before immigrating to Israel. He entered the Knesset in 1984 as the sole MK of his Kach political party. Kach was banned from campaigning in the 1988 Knesset election because of its incitement to racism. Kahane was assassinated by a Muslim terrorist at the end of a public speaking engagement at the New York Marriott Hotel in Manhattan in 1990. The assassin was a member of a New Jersey terrorist cell led by Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman, which also carried out the deadly truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, eight years before the 9/11 attack.

Otzma Yehudit’s policy platform is not much different from other right-wing factions already within the Jewish Home front. It opposes further negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the formation of a Palestinian state, and calls for the cancellation of the remaining provisions of the Oslo accords, Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank and the assertion of direct Israeli control over the Har Habayis. Otzma Yehudit also urges that Israeli-Arabs, Palestinians and other non-Jews who refuse to pledge their loyalty to Israel be asked to leave the country. The party also calls for the modification of the curriculum taught in Israeli public schools to “deepen Jewish identity in students.”

AMERICAN INTERFERENCE

Not only were Netanyahu’s efforts to join Otzma Yehudit with the Jewish Home harshly criticized in the Israeli media, they were also condemned by a statement issued last week by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and quickly echoed by the usually non-partisan AIPAC pro-Israel lobbying organization.

The AJC said that while it did not “normally comment on political parties and candidates during an [Israeli] election” after the joint list agreement between Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home was announced, it felt “compelled to speak out.”

The AJC declared that said the “views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel… Historically, the views of extremist parties, reflecting the extreme left or the extreme right, have been firmly rejected by mainstream parties, even if the electoral process of Israel’s robust democracy has enabled their presence, however small, in the Knesset.”

The next day, AIPAC released a tweet endorsing the AJC statement. It said, “We agree with AJC. AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also criticized the Israeli prime minister, calling the merger deal “very disturbing.”

“He obviously has some political calculation that drove him to it, but politics can’t dictate everything,” Hoenlein told the Associated Press. “You have to take into consideration all of the ramifications and all of the concerns.”

The leader of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Jonathan Greenblatt, tweeted, “There should be no room for racism and no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy. ADL previously has spoken out on hate-filled rhetoric of leaders of the Otzma Yehudit Party. It is troubling that they are being legitimized by this union.”

The only American-based Jewish groups which defended Netanyahu’s politically-motivated efforts to bolster the right wing by encouraging the merger of Otzma Yehudit into the Jewish Home were the National Council of Young Israel and the Zionist Organization of America.

Farley Weiss, the president of the National Council of Young Israel cited as a historical precedent for Netanyahu’s move established by the left-wing government of Yitzchak Rabin, when it relied on votes from Arab-Israeli parties in 1993 to secure the passage of the Oslo II accords.

NETANYAHU CONDEMNS THE LEFT’S DOUBLE STANDARD

Netanyahu appeared to be particularly stung by the criticism from AIPAC, although he did not respond to it by name. Writing in a Facebook post, he remarked on the “hypocrisy and double standards by the left. They’re condemning [the formation of] a right-wing majority bloc with right-wing parties, while the left acted to bring extreme Islamists into the Knesset to create a majority bloc.

“In 1999 [Ehud] Barak took part in a campaign rally with the inciting Sheik Raed Salah.

“Representatives of Labor and Meretz voted for Azmi Bishara, who spied for Hezbollah, to enter the Knesset, and [then-Labor chairman Yitzchok] Herzog sought a surplus vote agreement with the Joint [Arab] List and said the Arab MKs were legitimate in the government,” Netanyahu wrote.

He asked how “a union with right-wing parties is wrong, but working to bring in inciters and those who spy against Israel is legitimate,” calling the notion “the height of absurdity.”

The leaders of Otzma Yehudit responded directly to the criticism from AIPAC, claiming that the pro-Israel lobbying group “wants to see the rise of the Israeli left to power and will be happy with a government that hands over territories and gives weapons to the enemy.”

They also said that AIPAC had no right to “interfere in the [Israeli] elections.”

“When they come here, they can be partners in the fateful and existential decisions of the nation that sits in Zion, and we will be happy to have them make decisions along with the citizens of Israel,” party leaders said.

They also condemned the “hypocrisy” of AIPAC for failing to “so strongly condemn [Arab MKs] Hanin Zoabi and Ahmad Tibi’s running for the Knesset, nor have they ever come out against elements on the Israeli left like Ofer Cassif [a Jewish member of the mostly Arab Chadash party], who want to abolish the Jewish state.”

Otzma Yehudit’s close association with Kahane’s ideology prompted many members of Jewish Home to express initial opposition to the proposed partnership. They had to be persuaded by their party leaders Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, who explained the benefits that Netanyahu had promised in return for accepting a marriage of political convenience.

THE JUDGEMENT OF HISTORY

Israeli opposition members were quick to condemn Netanyahu for turning a blind eye to Otzma Yehudit’s notorious ideology for the sake of political expediency. The head of the Knesset opposition, Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich, said that, “history will remember the moment a prime minister of Israel, whose citizens include many Holocaust survivors or children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, gives legitimacy… to a Kahanist, racist party… whose leaders symbolize extremism and racism.”

Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay added that his party would do “everything possible to prevent this racist party from serving in the next government.”

On Monday, the Labor Party and Meretz filed separate petitions with Israel’s Central Elections Committee to have the Otzma Yehudit party banned from running in the April 9th election because of its support for Meir Kahane’s “despicable and racist” anti-Arab teachings.

Yisroel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman expressed his alarm at AIPAC’s condemnation of the Otzma Yehudit merger. “No one should have any doubts, this is the most important Jewish organization in the world, with significant repercussions. Enough said. When AIPAC speaks in such a manner, it is a real crisis.”

Liberman also expressed his contempt for Otzma Yehudit, which lives “on the fringe of Israeli politics, and not just diplomatically. They’re more Orthodox than Litzman, Gafni and Deri together,” he said, referring to the leaders of the UTJ and Shas parties.

Naftoli Bennett whose decision to break away from Jewish Home to form his own New Right party was the reason why the merger was necessary also criticized the move, declaring that its members of Otzma Yehudit who support the ideas of Meir Kahane are unfit to sit in the Knesset.

RABBI LAU CONDEMNS SIMILARITIES TO NAZI IDEOLOGY

Otzma Yehudit’s ideology also came under withering criticism from prominent Religious Zionist Rabbi Benny Lau. In his Shabbos morning sermon at the Ramban shul in Yerushalayim, Rabbi Lau compared the party’s platform to the notorious anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis in 1935 which stripped German Jews of their citizenship rights, declared them to be inferior and barred their interactions with ethnic Germans.

In a later interview, Rabbi Lau said, “As someone who dreams the dream of the return to Zion, I will fight so that the doctrine of Kahane doesn’t enter the Knesset, because it is a racial doctrine like the Nuremberg Laws.”

Otzma Yehudit leader, lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir, responded to Rabbi Lau’s widely publicized criticism by threatening to sue him in court for libel unless he issues a public apology to the right-wing party.

“Your words constitute clear libel and profound insult toward us,” Ben Gvir wrote to Rabbi Lau. “The comparison of Jews loyal to the state of Israel, to the land of Israel and to the people of Israel to Nazis crosses a red line. The Nazis exterminated six million Jews in the Holocaust, and tried to destroy all the world’s Jews, for no reason other than that they were Jews, at the behest of a racial doctrine. Otzma Yehudit is a respectable movement that works to further the national interests of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. The comparison is wholly illegitimate.”

Ben Gvir added that Lau’s “actions and words humiliated us publicly, and made us targets for hate, ridicule and contempt.”

A KAHANE SUPPORTER’S DEFIANT RESPONSE

In a subsequent radio interview, Ben Gvir also declared himself to be an “admirer of Rabbi Kahane” and defiantly restated his party’s views. “Anyone who isn’t loyal should leave here [Israel], and must be expelled from here. If that’s racism, then I’m an extremist,” he said.

Ben Gvir also has his political roots in Kahane’s Kach movement, and speaks frankly about the prime minister’s motivation for urging his party to run jointly with National Home. “Netanyahu didn’t suddenly discover Dr. Ben-Ari or start liking Itamar Ben-Gvir. He knows the math, and he knows that if we don’t unite, he won’t have a coalition.”

The Jewish Home also pushed back against Lau’s criticism by defending party leader Rafi Peretz, who negotiated the merger deal. It praised Peretz as “one of the greatest builders of religious Zionism, who has dedicated his whole life to the well-being of the Jewish people.”

But Rabbi Lau refused to apologize or take back his accusations. In a response to Ben Gvir’s letter, Lau’s attorney, Eyal Rosovsky, wrote that Lau’s criticisms were not loshon hora and were based upon “explicit positions expressed by Rabbi Kahane and his followers, both orally and in writing, over the years.”

WAITING FOR THE CAMPAIGN TO PLAY OUT

Israeli political leaders have been anticipating the April 9 election since Lieberman resigned as defense minister in November. It was always viewed as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, with only two potential major variables. The first variable is whether attorney general Avichai Mandelblit announces his intention to indict Netanyahu on any of the three ongoing police investigations of the prime minister. The second variable is whether any Israeli political party leader emerges during the campaign who can convince voters that he can safeguard the country and manage its affairs more capably than Netanyahu. As the campaign transitions into high gear, Benny Gantz seems to be the only party leader in a position to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s re-election hopes.

At this point, more than a month before Election Day, the race is much too close to call on the basis of the opinion polls. The attorney general has yet to render his decision, which will determine, in the eyes of some, whether or not Netanyahu is fit to run for re-election, and Gantz has yet to prove himself worthy on the campaign trail of the hopes that so many of Netanyahu’s opponents have invested in him as Israel’s next leader.

Then there is the unexpected crisis which could emerge without warning along Israel’s southern or northern borders, or in the international community, that could tip voter opinions to either side.

In the end, the outcome of the April 9 election, as well as the future of Israel, remains firmly in Hashem’s hands.