Opinion

Netanyahu Just Destroyed One of Israel’s Key National Security Assets

Netanyahu is backing Israel’s KKK for naked domestic political gain. And that's not all the damage his frenzied, odious political maneuver has caused

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he meets with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019
\ Kacper Pempel/ REUTERS

Amidst a growing crisis with Poland over Israeli comments about its culpability in the Holocaust and preparations for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Israeli efforts to curtail Iranian activities in Syria, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent Tuesday and Wednesday dealing with what he viewed as a far more pressing matter: ensuring the political survival of Israel’s most prominent racist and anti-democratic party.

Netanyahu’s pleading, cajoling, and promises of future political power were all aimed at sealing a merger between HaBayit HaYehudi and the Jewish supremacist Otzma Yehudit, the latter being the descendant of Meir Kahane’s banned terrorist organization Kach.

With polling showing HaBayit HaYehudi hovering at the threshold for entering the Knesset and Otzma Yehudit below it, Netanyahu was afraid that rightwing votes would be wasted, making it harder for him to assemble a coalition and remain prime minister in the next government.

So after promising HaBayit HaYehudi two ministries and a spot on the Likud list itself, Netanyahu convinced the party to run jointly with Otzma Yehudit, thereby making Netanyahu’s continued residence in Balfour Street more secure.

Much of the condemnation of Netanyahu’s embrace and enabling of Otzma Yehudit has focused on the distinctly unflattering picture it paints of a leader willing to stand next to the equivalent of Israel’s KKK for naked domestic political gain.

Emil Salman

All of that criticism is entirely deserved, and it does indeed speak volumes about Netanyahu and anyone who else who agrees to sit in a coalition that rests on the shoulders of Israelis who were part of a designated terrorist group, who openly glorify the mass murdering terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who call for expelling Palestinian citizens of Israel who refuse to sign loyalty oaths, and who campaign for the exclusion of non-Jews from the public sphere.

But aside from the rank odiousness of what Netanyahu has just done, there is another variable to this that should not escape notice, which is that Netanyahu has also just damaged one of Israel’s most valuable national security assets.

As both supporters and opponents of Israel well know, one of Israel’s most potent claims on the world stage is that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Netanyahu and Israeli government officials dating back to the state’s founding have touted this fact as a reason to support Israel against its regional adversaries.

Particularly when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israel’s popularity among American policymakers and the American people has been driven – contrary to Ilhan Omar’s assertion about the influence of pro-Israel money – more than anything else by the notion of shared liberal values and a common democratic culture.

As Israel has dealt with objections to its embrace of rightwing nationalist governments in Europe, it has been able to deflect that criticism by pointing out that Israel itself does not exhibit those values.

As the BDS movement has gained more traction on the left, with two members of Congress who for the first time support it, Israel has successfully pointed out the absurdity of singling out the one democracy in the Middle East while authoritarian abusers of human rights abound throughout the region.

And most prominently, when Israel is criticized for its actions in the West Bank, it quickly points to the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel have full rights and a better situation than they would in any Arab country.

Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014.
Ofer Vaknin

In other words, Israeli democracy and liberalism are not only a benefit to Israelis who enjoy the freedoms they afford, but benefit Israel’s foreign relations and its global security.

Netanyahu’s frenzied actions designed to boost a racist, neo-fascist party made up of anti-Arab activists whose previous political vehicle was banned by Israel’s Supreme Court and is internationally designated as a terrorist organization – and to explicitly promise that it will be part of any government he forms after the election – damages Israel on every front mentioned above.

Any American who questions whether Israel does indeed still exhibit an ironclad commitment to liberal values will be on newly solid ground.

Europeans who worry about Israel’s continued protections for its non-Jewish minority citizens now have proof that Netanyahu is willing to welcome the ugliest form of xenophobic supremacist thought right alongside him in Israel’s halls of power.

Anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic BDS activists now have an actual data point for their argument that Israel is an unrepentant racist state.

When the Israeli government points to Palestinian Authority incitement to terrorism as a grave national security threat, supporting measures in the U.S. to combat Palestinian terrorism incitement such as the Taylor Force Act and enacting its own law to withhold PA tax revenues, its argument is now a lot more hollow having moved to incorporate its own terrorists into its ranks.

Whether or not Otzma Yehudit manages to get more than one Knesset seat or move the needle one inch on Israeli policy is irrelevant; Netanyahu’s tacit alliance with them destroys Israel’s position on the moral high ground in incalculable way.

In an effort to save his own kingdom, Netanyahu is wantonly trampling not only his own public image but Israel’s as well. The gambit may work as a political tactic, but it comes at great cost to Israel’s strategic position in the world.

For those who are accustomed to boasting of Israel’s impeccable moral standing, it may be time to start formulating some new arguments.

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. Twitter: @mkoplow