The Racist Party That Could Save Netanyahu's Political Career in Tuesday's Election

Polls say extremist Otzma Yehudit party may win four seats in September 17 election, bringing Kahanists back into Knesset and potentially helping prime minister build a right-wing coalition

An Otzma Yehudit election ad, right, on a road sign in the West Bank. The ad features the party's leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

There are two surprise packages in Israel’s “do-over” election. But while one of them, Avigdor Lieberman’s resurgent Yisrael Beiteinu, threatens to make life more difficult for Benjamin Netanyahu in his efforts to establish a new government, another could help him secure the 61 Knesset seats he so desperately craves.

Otzma Yehudit (Hebrew for “Jewish Power”), led by a handful of former followers of the deeply racist late Rabbi Meir Kahane, is suddenly tipped to win four seats in Tuesday’s election — which could potentially make or break Netanyahu’s success in forming a right-wing bloc.

Ahead of the April election, the prime minister drew widespread condemnation among U.S. Jewish organizations after encouraging other right-wing religious parties to merge with Otzma Yehudit on a joint slate, ultimately called the Union of Right-Wing Parties. 

Although the alliance (which also included Rabbi Rafi Peretz’s Habayit Hayehudi and Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union) won five seats in April, no Otzma Yehudit candidate was placed highly enough on the slate to make it into the Knesset.

When the Knesset voted to dissolve itself at the end of May after Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition, Otzma Yehudit ultimately rejected all overtures to run on a joint ticket and opted to go it alone. 

An illustration of Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, draped in the colors of the outlawed Kach party.
Eran Wolkowski

If the polls prove accurate, that decision looks like bearing fruit on Tuesday and Kahanists will once more be in the corridors of power, much to the horror of many liberal Jews.

Why exactly is Otzma Yehudit so toxic? The party is led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a political descendant of Kahane — the infamous American rabbi-turned Knesset member whose vitriolic racism against Arabs got his Kach party banned from running in the 1988 Israeli election. Two years later, he was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman in a Manhattan hotel.

Otzma Yehudit’s platform reflects its roots. The ultra-nationalist and anti-Arab party opposes any form of a Palestinian state and any relationship or negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, while calling for outright annexation of the entire West Bank and cancellation of the Oslo Accords

It also calls for Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, embraces deportation of non-Jews, aspires to “a Jewish majority and a loyal civilian population through emigration,” and says Israel should employ “every legal means that will help the enemy leave our land.”

Some of the party’s members are affiliated with both Lehava — the far-right anti-assimilation group that opposes relationships between Jews and non-Jews — and Hemla, a group that purports to “rescue” the “daughters of Israel” from mixed marriages with Arab men.

A man carrying a flag bearing the logo of the anti-assimilationist group Lehava at a protest in the West Bank, June 17, 2019.
אורן בן חקון

When talks were being conducted at the end of July to keep Otzma Yehudit in the right-wing alliance for the year’s second election, Ben-Gvir was already fully aware of his party’s importance to the prime minister.

He told Army Radio, “The addition of Otzma Yehudit could save the right-wing camp.” He added that Netanyahu “hasn’t suddenly fallen in love with Itamar Ben-Gvir — he has never even spoken to me — but he understands simple math.”

When those talks failed — and also a second set in which Otzma Yehudit was in discussions with another extremist party, Noam — Otzma Yehudit opted to go it alone. This was widely seen as wasting right-wing votes, as it the party was not expected to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent and enter the Knesset.

Indeed, in the last week of August, Netanyahu reportedly asked the party not to run in the September 17 election, so concerned was he about those right-wing votes. (He subsequently struck a deal with another far-right party, Zehut, which guaranteed its leader, Moshe Feiglin, a role in a future right-wing government and promotion of its efforts to legalize marijuana). Ben-Gvir rejected Netanyahu’s overtures, though, arguing that most Otzma Yehudit voters would not vote for another party if it drops out, so there was no point in doing so.

A sign of the party’s toxicity is that two of its party members, Benzi Gopstein and Baruch Marzel, were barred from running in the election by the Supreme Court last month. 

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit had already told the Central Elections Committee that Marzel and Gopstein should be barred because a “clear, categorical picture emerges of incitement to racism by them, methodically and over years.”

“Marzel treats Israeli Arabs in general as an enemy threatening the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” Mendelblit told the committee. “Marzel calls time and again to act against this enemy: To harm him physically, to prevent his employment and livelihood, to evict him from his home, and more, to banish him from the land of Israel.”

Mendelblit presented numerous examples of racists statements by both men. Marzel, for instance, once said: “I understand that there is just one solution, and it is the Jewish solution of the Holy Torah — separation, segregation, not mixing. We are here and they are there. The enemy should be sent to the Arab nations.”

Gopstein, meanwhile, is one of the leaders of Lehava. His statements include saying that “nice” Arabs “are enemies too. He's a good Arab, he's a sweet Arab, sweeter than honey, but he's my enemy.” He also claimed that, according to Jewish religious law, killing Arabs is permissible and that some “deserve to have violence used against them.”

In a Haaretz profile in 2016, party leader Ben-Gvir was described as one of the best-known faces of right-wing radicalism in Israel. The attorney has become the “go-to man” for Jewish extremists who have run afoul of the law.

“You understand that I don’t do it for the money,” Ben-Gvir told Haaretz at the time. “In the best-case scenario, I cover my gas expenses. The reason I do it is because I truly believe I need to help these people.”

Speaking at the Central Elections Committee hearing last month, left-wing lawmaker Stav Shaffir called for Otzma Yehudit’s disqualification, calling it an “an anti-Zionist and antidemocratic party.” She added that Ben-Gvir had published her personal contact details online and said dozens of threats on her life followed.

Ben-Gvir responded by calling Shaffir a liar, adding that she “isn't even interesting enough to be threatened.”

On Tuesday, against all odds, his party may pass the electoral threshold and take its place in the 22nd Knesset. In a sign of what may be to come, last week the party aired an ad on Makan, Israel’s only public Arabic radio station, directly addressing Arab lawmakers.

“Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Heba Yazbak and everyone who thinks this is Palestine: This is the State of Israel: the state of the Jewish people,” it said. “Over all these years, the Supreme Court gave you approval, but Otzma Yehudit promises — this is your last term in the Knesset.”