Analysis

In the Battle Over Kahanists, Bennett Finally Stands Up to Netanyahu

Far-right leader may have been left out of broad union, but the PM has already dragged the Israeli right into the mud of toxic ideology

Naftali Bennett speaks to the media ahead of a meeting in Jerusalem, July 28, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

As he sat down late Wednesday with Habayit Hayehudi leader Rafi Peretz for yet another attempt to form a joint election ticket, Hayamin Hehadash leader Naftali Bennett posted on Facebook an emphatic statement saying “I won’t include in my list someone who has in his living room a picture of a man who murdered 29 innocent people.”

That was the reason given by the defense minister, who pointed out in his post that he is also “the former education minster of the State of Israel,” for his total refusal to run alongside Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir on a slate of candidates coming from all the different wings of religious Zionism. (This, even though only six months ago he was offering Ben-Gvir the No. 8 spot on a similar list.)

How convenient for Bennett that Ben-Gvir decided to decorate his home with the face of Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer from the 1994 Hebron massacre. What if Ben-Gvir had chosen a different picture for his wall? Would Bennett then have been fine with the senior representative of the Jewish supremacist movement?

To be fair, it’s not just Bennett who prefers to focus on a picture on the wall. The Israeli media, which over the past year has taken to regularly hosting Ben-Gvir in its studios for lengthy interviews, also loves to challenge him with Goldstein’s picture instead of his own toxic ideology.

The right-wing parties condemned Rabbi Meir Kahane, the godfather of the movement, regardless of whatever pictures hung on his wall. So did the rabbis and politicians of the religious Zionist community. They all recognized that Kahane was a dangerous racist, and ostracized him.

But Benjamin Netanyahu, in his frantic attempts to cobble together a majority that will grant him immunity from prosecution, long ago dragged his allies into the mud. Including Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit  in traditional right-wing and religious parties would have been unthinkable a year ago. Now it’s just an inconvenient necessity.

Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit, January 15, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Bennett, who has belatedly decided he doesn’t want to be tainted, needs Goldstein’s picture on Ben-Gvir’s wall as his excuse. It’s much easier to use that than to try to explain why another of his partners, ultra-nationalist Bezalel Smotrich, is that different from Ben-Gvir.

To Bennett’s credit, he has finally found the guts to say no to Netanyahu.

Over the last year Netanyahu has spared no effort to cajole the religious Zionists into an unholy alliance with the neo-Kahanists, all to gather 30,000 to 40,000 more votes. So far, it has blown up in his face. He only succeeded in further splitting the already splintered community, which isn’t even certain it needs its own sectorial parties.

Last April, the Bennett-Shaked Hayamin Hehadash party failed to cross the electoral threshold. In September, Netanyahu made many people think he was in possession of polls that showed Otzma Yehudit passing the threshold, and many thousands of additional racists wasted their votes.

Netanyahu is so used to treating the religious Zionists as his captive supporters that on Wednesday morning he floated the idea of appointing the old, unwell Rabbi Chaim Druckman to the Peretz-Ben-Gvir list to help them pass the threshold. The last time Netanyahu used Druckman in this way was 15 months ago, when he sent his national security adviser to urge him to order Bennett to abandon his ultimatum to become defense minister. For Bennett, who was already fed up with rabbinical dictates, it was the last straw and a month later he split from Habayit Hayehudi, along with Ayelet Shaked, to set up his own party in which rabbis wouldn’t tell him what to do.

In the end, Netanyahu was forced to appoint Bennett as defense minister anyway. And Bennett will no longer allow Netanyahu to force allies on him. It isn’t because of Ben-Gvir’s racism or his sick Goldstein fandom. It’s simply the twilight of the Netanyahu era. Bibi the Magician is losing his powers.