Netanyahu's Trump-inspired Embrace of Racist Right Is Repulsive, but Gantz-Lapid Threat Means You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

For all his achievements, the prime minister is doomed to go down in history as the leader who corrupted his country’s soul to stay in power

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, Jerusalem, February 18, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, Jerusalem, February 18, 2019.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Until proven otherwise, the dramatic, last-minute union between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid is worthy of the moniker “Big Bang,” for the time being at least. Less than 24 hours before the deadline for submitting the parties’ lists of candidates for the Knesset, the alliance is upending Israel’s political landscape. With the addition of Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s popular predecessor as army chief of staff, the new centrist alliance creates the first clear and credible threat to Benjamin Netanyahu’s supposedly inevitable victory in the April 9 election.

The Thursday morning announcement that Gantz and Lapid had reached an agreement confounded the predictions of experts and analysts. Time was too short, experts agreed, and egos too big. They underestimated the intensity of popular resistance to Benjamin Netanyahu, which unites his opponents from far left to center-right, from grassroots to the very top. Gantz and Lapid’s mutual suspicions and clashing ambitions buckled under the popular pressure on the two leaders to rise to the occasion, push the political envelope and create a united front against Netanyahu.

>> Explained: Why racist Rabbi Meir Kahane is roiling Israeli politics 30 years after his death Opinion: Netanyahu now endorses Jewish fascism. U.S. Jews, cut your ties with him now

For Netanyahu, the Gantz-Lapid merger is the sum of his fears. The prime minister may have reacted to the news of the new partnership with his staple warning against “a leftist government beholden to Arabs,” but he knows the ludicrous allegation won’t sway anyone outside his loyal base. Describing a list that includes three former army chiefs with proven battle records in its top four spots as defeatist and disloyal is a bridge too far for anyone but blind admirers of the prime minister. In any other context, the Gantz-Ashkenazi-Moshe Ya'alon triumvirate would be viewed as overly hawkish, bordering on a military junta.

The union creates two separate perils for Netanyahu. The first is that the Gantz-Lapid combo would gain more Knesset seats than Likud, providing President Reuven Rivlin with an unassailable pretext to give Gantz first crack at forming a new coalition. The second is that the novelty of the Gantz-Lapid list will render their fusion greater than the sum of its parts, nudging hitherto skeptical right wing moderates to abandon Netanyahu for his rivals. For the first time since calling an early election, Netanyahu’s guaranteed right-wing majority is cast in doubt.

Meir Kahane addressing followers in Jerusalem, 1984. Credit: HARNIK NATI / * Government Press Office

But the good cheer that is now enveloping the anti-Netanyahu camp should be tempered by apprehension and fear. Netanyahu, a maestro of political machinations, is now a cornered political animal fighting not only for his career but given his impending indictment by the attorney general, for his freedom as well. Netanyahu was pulling out all the stops even before the emergence of the new alliance; now he is engaged in a life and death struggle that renders him more dangerous than ever before.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 16Credit: Haaretz

So if you thought Netanyahu hit absolute rock bottom in the past few days by pressuring the religious right to incorporate the rabid right-wing and arguably racist party of former disciples of Meir Kahane, aka Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) – think again. You ain’t seen nothing yet. If this is what it takes for Netanyahu to win the election and to use his victory to escape the long arm of the law, he won’t hesitate to open the gates of hell for the evil and despicable to march through, enter the Israeli bloodstream and contaminate it for evermore.

>> The Kahanists and the homophobes: The two parties no one wants but Netanyahu needs

2. Netanyahu is undoubtedly a gifted orator, seasoned diplomat and one of the wiliest politicians on the world stage. Any fair appraisal of his tenure in office must credit Netanyahu for providing Israelis with ten years of much-appreciated stability, by their tumultuous standards. But Netanyahu now seems doomed to go down in history as a leader who corrupted the soul of his people, a cardinal sin for which there is no absolution.

All in all, when one includes his three years as prime minister in the 1990s, Netanyahu has led Israel for an astounding 13 years. In the nine that preceded the 2015 election, Netanyahu may have undermined the peace process and spread hate and division, as his critics maintain, but he seemed to know his limits and to respect the rules of the game.

Benny Gantz presents his party's full list in his second major campaign speech, Tel Aviv, February 20, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In the lead-up to the 2015 election, and even more so in their wake, Netanyahu began to evolve. He cut his own term in half with a shocking announcement of early election, citing a “plot” by coalition partners Lapid and Tzipi Livni to unseat him, which turned out to be a red herring. After the election, Netanyahu admitted that the real reason was to stop the media-backed campaign waged by his rivals in the Knesset, which was aimed at compelling Sheldon Adelson’s daily freebie Yisrael Hayom to charge a nominal price from its readers. Which, when you think about it, is a far more bizarre and disturbing motivation than some puffed-up paranoid fear of a palace coup.

Netanyahu’s vile Election Day warning of the Arabs coming in buses to the polls was not a one time blip, as he later claimed, but a harbinger of things to come. His come-from-behind victory over Isaac Herzog – which was achieved despite what Netanyahu perceived as fierce and illegitimate media agitation and Obama-inspired foreign intervention – propelled him to create the most ultra-nationalist right-wing government in Israel’s history.

The new Netanyahu, who now saw himself as part martyr and part messiah, launched a crusade against his mortal enemies, the leftist elites. He would no longer play by the rules; instead, he would change them. He declared war on the very foundations of Israel’s liberal democracy, which, in his delusional paranoia, he now viewed as the enemy. He began to dismantle it, piece by piece.

Netanyahu allowed his ministers to run wild with their right-wing fantasies, which they did, packing the courts with like-minded judges, infusing religion into Israel’s secular school system, exerting political control over support for the arts and turning BDS-supporters and other harsh critics from the far left into personae non gratae and, by inference, tarring the entire left as disloyal.

Netanyahu was already engaged in a fierce battle against his perceived enemies, especially the media, when the U.S. presidency was still a twinkle in Donald Trump’s eyes. Trump’s shock election, however, turbo-charged Netanyahu with new energy and resolve. He felt the thrill of vicarious victory over the pundits and the polls, which had wrongly dismissed Trump’s chances. He had thwarted the doomsayers who warned that his antagonistic relationship with Barack Obama would end in disaster, combining his burning resentments with a self-righteous sense of vindication into venom that seeped through his veins.

Yair Lapid.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu is a cautious and calculating man by nature, but Trump’s brash brand of populism and carefree “up yours” attitude toward the same kind of elites that Netanyahu abhors invigorated him with renewed energy and purpose. Trump turned the unacceptable into a daily routine and made the outrageous seem run of the mill.The U.S. President expanded Netanyahu’s horizons and pushed him to venture into an anti-liberal and anti-democratic twilight zone, where no prime minister had gone before. By serving as a role model and by refusing to follow his predecessors, who had all intervened in one way or another to check Israel’s nationalistic and ethnocentric impulses, Trump freed Netanyahu of his inhibitions. His pathetic self-pity, vainglorious self-aggrandizement and escalating sense of “L’état c’est moi” took over instead.

When Netanyahu was confronted by the reality of an impending indictment, he drew his inspiration directly from Trump’s brazen attacks on his FBI investigators and potential prosecutors - an enemy’s list that will surely expand, if and when it comes to it, to his judges as well. Trump galvanized Netanyahu’s embrace of right-wing authoritarian regimes, even when the move entailed Holocaust revisionism and turning a blind eye to classic East European anti-Semitism, as long as it was unrelated to Israel.

Trump’s unabashed populism and ugly ethnocentrism paved Netanyahu’s way on a similar trajectory. Trump’s blatantly blind eye enabled the legislation of Netanyahu’s landmark, Jews-only nation state law. He pushed Netanyahu to embrace a worldview enunciated by John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural speech, albeit in a wildly different context: Henceforth, Netanyahu would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival” of the man once known as King Bibi.

Which is how Netanyahu can shrug off the nearly universal revulsion and condemnation sparked by his unrelenting pressure on the national-religious party to adopt Otzma Yehudit, and to thus revoke three decades of consensual excommunication of a party that still reveres the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, arguably the most effective racist agitator Israel has ever known. In this, the student Netanyahu outdid his White House mentor: Both were loathe to lose even the most rabidly racist votes, but while Trump hemmed and hawed before finally releasing a limp condemnation of David Duke and other white supremacists, Netanyahu opened the doors wide for their Israeli counterparts, handing them a prime ministerial “kosher” certificate and rendering them worthy of joining his coalition and wielding real power, for the first time in their history.

Cynics and critics might claim that the Kahanists’ platform - “encouraging” mass Palestinian emigration, stripping Israeli Arabs of their rights, outlawing homosexual relations and waging holy jihad against mixed marriages – are but a radical reflection of the entire Israeli right’s Weltanschauung. Nonetheless, the fact is that Kahane and his followers had been firmly placed outside the pale, until Netanyahu came along and rolled out a red carpet for their triumphant return to the fold.

FILE PHOTO: With a portrait of late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane on the wall, left, a Jewish settler walks inside a disputed building in the West Bank town of Hebron, November 16, 2008. Credit: AP

3. The biblical Book of Numbers, Chapter 25, tells the salacious story of the wholesale seduction of the male portion of the People of Israel by the not-so-innocent maidens of rival nations Moab and Midian. These foreign “harlots” – as the Bible describes them – exploited their sexual appeal to entice Hebrew men to engage in the vile and perverted ways of the local demigod, Baal Peor, whose name, in some translations, means “God of the Orifice,” which leaves far too little to the imagination.

Despite God's angry order to Moses to kill all the fornicators, and the plague He then sent to make His point, the mass cross-ethnic copulation continued, unashamed and unabated. When Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, took his Midianite mistress Cozbi in broad daylight, with everyone watching, Pinheas, grandson of Great Priest Aaron, decided he had seen enough. He speared the libidinous duo to death while they were engaging in their flagrante delicto.

Rather than take umbrage at Pinheas’ unilateral decision to murder Zimri and Cozbi, God was immensely pleased. He promised Pinheas and his seed eternal peace and priesthood because “he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.” Which is the same biblical quote that adorns the montage of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which is proudly displayed on the wall of the Hebron living room of Itamar Ben-Gvir, lawyer to right-wing radicals, disciple of the deceased Rabbi Meir Kahane, convicted racist inciter and terror supporter – and, courtesy of Netanyahu, a future respected member of the Israeli parliament. In Ben-Gvir’s mind, Goldstein is a hero.

The picture and accompanying verse played a symbolic role in the talks that led up to the agreement approved on Wednesday by the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi to create a “technical bloc” with Otzma Yehudit, also known as Meir Kahane’s fan club. One the leading rabbis of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Yaakov Medan, a senior figure in the national-religious movement, said last week that the merger with the Kahane worshippers in Otzma would only be approved if Ben-Gvir took down the picture in the living room, with its biblical allusion to God’s favorite zealot, Pinheas.

Ben-Gvir refused, but the merger was approved nonetheless. The golden rule of politics, expediency before principles, won the day. Habayit Hayehudi head Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who took over after Bennett bolted the party several weeks ago, was told that if Otzma Yehudit ran independently, it would probably fall short of the 3.25 percent threshold and thus waste tens of thousands of right-wing votes. Such an outcome could harm the prospects for another right-wing victory and could consign Habayit Hayehudi and its more radical partner National Union to death by threshold as well. Worse, it would thwart Netanyahu’s grand design of using his probable election victory to browbeat his would-be accusers into submission and to continue his endeavors to demolish whatever remains of its open and liberal leanings.

Kahane, gunned down in New York in 1990 by an Al-Qaeda operative, must be smiling at Netanyahu from his grave. As a token of appreciation, the Brooklyn-born firebrand may emulate his loyal follower Ben-Gvir and put up a portrait of Netanyahu in the living room of his burial place at Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot cemetery. Instead of the biblical verse lauding Pinheas’ zealotry, Kahane could find an apt caption in the Talmudic saying “The work of the just is carried out by others,” with “others” in this case meaning the highest official in the Land of Israel.

4. Finally, it may be worthwhile noting that while Kahane has inspired legions of Israeli racists, his own political career in Israel in the mid-1980s was hampered not only by his odious ideology but also by his American ways and accent, which were too alien for most Israelis at the time. For much the same reason, however, Kahane is a relatively known entity to most American Jews, who are otherwise clueless about most Israeli politicians.

American Jews remember the Jewish Defense League set up by Kahane in 1968, a few years before his immigration to Israel, as well as his agitation for Soviet Jews and his collaboration with mafia don Joseph Colombo on behalf of “discriminated minorities.” When Kahane left America, American Jewry breathed a sigh of relief, bidding good riddance to a man they considered bad rubbish.

Now, a quarter of a century after Israel seemed to be banishing Kahane and his repulsive doctrines, American Jews were understandably shocked this week to see Netanyahu recycling the trash and promoting it as safe for consumption. The remnants of goodwill towards Netanyahu are now being consigned into the dumpster fire, into which Netanyahu has already chucked the bulk of his ties to liberal American Jews.

Gantz and Lapid embraceCredit: Twitter

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