Why Netanyahu Chose Racist Jewish Supremacists Over His Oldest Political Allies

There was a time when Netanyahu was entirely unwilling to cooperate with the Kahanists. Now, in his desperation, he’s rescuing them from political oblivion, no matter what it takes

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Two years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu began trying to detoxify the once untouchable political successors of Meir Kahane. Now, he’s gone one step further
Two years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu began trying to detoxify the once untouchable political successors of Meir Kahane. Now, he’s gone one step furtherCredit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

"Just like we got to the ornamental badge on his car, we can get to Rabin," boasted the pudgy 19-year old in front of the cameras, brandishing the enameled Cadillac badge which an angry mob had torn off the prime ministerial limousine. A few weeks later, someone did get to Yitzhak Rabin. 

The proud vandal, Itamar Ben Gvir, is now the leader of Jewish Power, descendant of the outlawed Jewish supremacist Kach party, and third on the joint "Religious Zionism" list running in next month’s Knesset election.

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"Religious Zionism" is the brain-child of Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged it to join forces with Bezalel Smotrich’s ultra-nationalist National Union and the homophobes’ "Noam."

Netanyahu is anxious to see the neo-Kahanists and their fellow-travelers in the next Knesset. None of the three parties were likely to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold on their own, but together they have a chance of crossing and contributing four or five seats to his coalition. 

Not only has Netanyahu become the Godfather of Jewish Supremacy, detoxifying the once untouchable political brand of Kahanism (he did this once already in the first of this series of elections in early 2019), this election he has gone a step further, with Likud signing a surplus votes agreement with "Religious Zionism."

An Otzma Yehudit poster from last year featuring far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the slogan: 'Only Ben Gvir can save Bibi'Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In other words, not only will those voting for the small party be trying to get Ben Gvir in to the Knesset, but anyone voting Likud, which, going by the polls, will be around quarter of the Israeli electorate, will be collaborating in befouling Israel’s parliament. 

Many left-wing politicians and pundits see this development as a closing of the circle, a denouement for Netanyahu, the inciter-in-chief against Rabin. I disagree. 

A clear-eyed view of the 27 months between the public revealing of the Oslo talks and Rabin’s assassination shows in my opinion that Netanyahu was faithfully fulfilling his role as leader of the opposition at the time. Half of Israel (at times slightly less, at others more) were against Oslo. Rabin himself, in his statements before the 1992 election, would have been against Oslo. It was Netanyahu’s duty to lead those protests. 

Netanyahu’s political opponents and much of the Israeli media retrospectively accused him of having lead the toxic incitement against Rabin that lead to the assassination, but there is absolutely no evidence of this. He didn’t encourage the cries of "Rabin the traitor" and "Death to Rabin" on the margins of the demonstrations where he spoke. He had no power to force the Ben Gvirs to leave. And he did speak out against those slogans, and insisted that, while in his opinion Rabin was tragically wrong, he was under no account condoning talk of treason. 

Netanyahu was no more willing to cooperate with the Kahanists in those days than his predecessor as Likud leader,Yitzhak Shamir, who walked out of the plenum, along with the rest of the MKs, when Meir Kahane got up to speak during his one term as an MK in 1984-88. His efforts, which began two years ago, to bring Jewish Power in from the cold and boost his majority is a new development, borne of his desperation to avoid his bribery and fraud trial. 

Netanyahu's efforts, which began two years ago, to bring Jewish racists in from the cold to boost his majority, is borne of desperation to avoid his bribery and fraud trialCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The surplus votes agreement signed Wednesday states that "Likud and Religious Zionism recognize the need to form a strong right-wing government lead by Likud Chairman Mr Benjamin Netanyahu." 

It’s important to place "Religious Zionism" in quote-marks. It may be the name Smotrich has chosen for his new list, but it doesn’t represent the religious Zionist community, which consists of a tenth of Israel’s population.

Based on the performance of the previous joint list of Smotrich and Ben Gvir in April 2019, and on current polls, less than quarter of religious Zionist Israelis will be voting for "Religious Zionism." Netanyahu may have legitimized Kahanism, but they have other options. They may be right-wingers, most of them, but they are repelled not only by the overt racism and homophobia, but also by Smotrich’s religious exhibitionism. 

In the April 2019 election, their list (which then ran as the "Union of Right-Wing Parties") received 159,000 votes. That’s only 20,000 votes over the threshold. And then the "Union" included the venerable Habayit Hayehudi, giving it a slight veneer of religious Zionist respectability. This time around, Habayit Hayehudi are gone, and its place are the homophobes of Noam. 

There’s no way that won’t have distanced enough of the voters from two years ago to push Smotrich and Ben Gvir beneath the threshold and, with them, the extra seats Netanyahu needs for his majority. 

So why are all the polls over the last week predicting that "Religious Zionism" will cross the threshold, and win four or five seats?

Assuming the polls are right, which is not a given, the tens of thousands of votes rescuing the supremacists from electoral oblivion are mostly coming from the ultra-Orthodox community. 

Far-right lawmaker is the poster-boy for the religious extremism that has taken hold among a minority of the religious Zionists in the past three decadesCredit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Smotrich has been working for years to build a bridge between his personal political platform and the Haredim. In every Knesset vote on matters of religion, Smotrich votes along with Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). In the media he defends the ultra-Orthodox passionately, especially recently from the criticism against them for flouting the coronavirus lockdown. Ben Gvir is also very popular among the Haredim, especially in strongholds of Mizrahi voters on the old fault-line between Likud and Shas.

On a religious level, there is very little difference between Smotrich and the Haredim, except for the fact most of his (male) voters have served in the IDF. Smotrich doesn’t want to force the Haredim to do the same and just like them, he’s against all women serving in the army. 

Smotrich is a Haredi with a colorful knitted kippa, who recited the celebratory Hallel prayer on Israel’s Independence Day. He is the poster-boy for the religious extremism that has taken hold among a minority of the religious Zionists in the past three decades. 

But the more significant development has been on the Haredi side, which a generation ago had no clear position on diplomatic and security matters, and are now totally in sync with the far-right’s notions of the Greater Land of Israel and hatred of Arabs. That’s why in last month’s ultra-Orthodox riots against the lockdown, there were those who tried to hunt down and lynch Arab drivers.

The ultra-Orthodox voters are the most faithful of voters to their traditional parties. In this election, according to polling conducted by Professor Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute, no less than 87 percent of UTJ voters in the last election, and 72 percent of Shas voters, are planning to vote the same this time around.

No other party comes even close to those levels of loyalty. But there are still around 20 percent of potentially mobile Haredi voters who can save the "Religious Zionism" party.

Ultra-Orthodox voters are Israel's most loyal voters to their traditional parties. But around 20 percent are potentially mobile, and potentially willing electoral targets for the religious far rightCredit: Oren Ben Hakon

"A vote for Smotrich and Ben Gvir can appeal to Haredim," says Hermann. "They’re a more activist alternative to the studiousness of Rabbi Kanievsky," the highly influential Haredi leader known as the "Minister for Torah."

Such a development is anathema to Haredi politicians and rabbis. There’s nothing significant about a trickle of voters to Likud or whatever peripheral far-right Kahanist spawn was on offer (especially if they were Chabadniks, who are by the most extreme and racist among the ultra-Orthodox), but tens of thousands voting for Smotrich, who has actively been trying to blur the lines between him and the Haredim, could serve as a dangerous precedent that will shake the ultra-Orthodox commitment to vote in accordance with their rabbis’ instructions.

That would mean not just the potential loss of a Knesset seat or two, but a historic erosion of rabbinical authority and leadership, hand-in-hand with a historical erosion of the contract between Israel's Jewish parties to anathematize Kahane and his successors.

In the last days of the election campaign, Netanyahu will do all he can to help push the Smotrich-Ben Gvir ticket over the threshold. That means he could find himself on a collision course with his oldest allies, the Haredi leadership, who would prefer to see "Religious Zionism" out of the next Knesset, even if it meant dashing Netanyahu’s hopes of personal survival, as long as tens of thousands of young Haredi voters remain within the fold. 

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