He's not Trump. You can't blame what Benjamin Netanyahu does on a serious, volatile and likely untreatable personality disorder, or on profound, doesn't-know-what-he-doesn't-know ignorance.
He's not Trump. Netanyahu is smart, knowledgeable, self-aware. He is not rash.
For decades now I've been watching Netanyahu, studying him, asking aides about him. I figured I knew him. I used to think I understood him, that his actions and words made it clear that for all his posturing, he was amoral, bereft of a sense of right and wrong, unconcerned about ethics, unhindered by conscience, devoid of a moral compass.
But now, with this election campaign, I realize I was wrong. Benjamin Netanyahu is not amoral. He's evil.
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It's not just that, as defense minister, he has repeatedly and unprecedentedly divulged state secrets, in the process goading and humiliating Israel's primary enemies, all for presumed electoral gain, and to assuage the pangs of his chronic Iran obsession. In doing so, he has placed Israeli military personnel at risk and walked a course of escalation which could lead to war.
It's not just that as prime minister, he has enabled, countenanced, courted and endorsed white nationalists, homophobes, and ultra-right anti-Semites on three continents, often to the horror and betrayal of Diaspora Jewish communities.
Nor is it just the extent to which he is wielding cruel and far-reaching collective punishment against the Palestinians as a campaign tool, dragooning the Trump administration to join him in choking off aid to the West Bank and rendering the insufferable hell of the power-down, water-starved Gaza Strip only that much more unlivable.
Nor is it just the fact that Netanyahu doesn't even bother to hide it anymore. Despite – or because of – a flood tide of international condemnation and his own attorney general's reported warning that the International Criminal Court could construe it as a war crime, the prime minister told right-wing journalists last week that "it would certainly help" if the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar were forcibly evacuated and demolished before presumably approving voters went to the polls on April 9.
No. This is the one that tells you more than you want to know about evil: Netanyahu's relentless campaign to bring into his future governing coalition, the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, led by disciples of the vicious, unabashedly racist, rabidly Jewish supremacist ideology of the late Meir Kahane.
Netanyahu has openly expressed his deep concern that as many as 100,000 or more far-right votes could be cast in vain if extremist parties like Otzma fail to clear the 3.25-percent electoral threshold.
Netanyahu, backed by the media resources of Sheldon Adelson's mass-circulation daily Israel Hayom, has spent much of his time and energy pressing leaders of other right-wing parties to merge with Otzma, which would then form a key part of a post-election Netanyahu coalition.
But so extreme is Otzma that even Bezalel Smotrich, a leader of the far-right Habayit Hayehudi, and perhaps the most publicly racist and homophobic of Israeli lawmakers, initially rebuffed the pressure from Netanyahu to bring in Otzma. However, on Wednesday, the eve of a deadline for finalizing party tickets, Otzma announced it had agreed to a merger with the Habayit Hayehudi and National Union parties, in order, Otzma said, to prevent "the establishment of a leftist government, God forbid."
It later emerged that in order to seal the deal, Netanyahu offered Habayit Hayehudi the education and housing ministries - giving them effective control of settlement expansion and public school curricula - in addition to two seats in the security cabinet.
Past Likud leaders like Menachem Begin ostracized and eventually formally outlawed Kahane and his followers. Led by Begin, the other 119 legislators would leave the Knesset hall in the mid-1980s when then-MK Kahane would take the podium.
But Netanyahu, whose political legacy was cemented by his last-minute 2015 announcement to Jewish voters that hordes of Arabs were about to storm the polling booths, is unfazed, saying nothing about the violence, bigotry, incitement and anti-democratic pillars of the Kahanist creed.
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Netanyahu has gone so far as to take time away from meetings at the recent Mideast summit in Warsaw to telephone influential settlement movement rabbis in an effort to pressure settler-dominated parties to accept Otzma.
This week, as the Thursday deadline for party mergers neared, Netanyahu turned the heat up further. The calls to rabbis now included Smotrich's father, Rabbi Haim Yeruham Smotrich. Netanyahu "beseeched him, 'Talk to your son, [get him] to unite with Otzma Yehudit," Israel's Channel 13 quoted the prime minister as saying.
Ironically, it was a move by hard-line Netanyahu coalition rightists that raised the threshold to 3.25 percent, in a direct, and failed, attempt to eliminate Arab parties from the Knesset in the 2015 election.
Netanyahu and others have pointed with alarm to the 1992 race, when the far-right Tehiya party got a particularly low threshold raised, only to be eliminated from the Knesset by the terms of its own law. This, in turn, paved the way for the rise of the Rabin government, perhaps the most left-leaning in Israel’s history.
The objects of Netanyahu’s political ardor may be seen in ads adorning city buses in Jerusalem: the Kahane heirs who are Otzma’s poster boys, graduates and spearheads of Kach, Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives) and other Kahanist offshoots.
There is Baruch Marzel, who has in the past called for the targeted assassination of leftists and a holy war against LGBTQ people.
There is Itamar Ben-Gvir, attorney for a long list of Jews suspected of anti-Palestinian terrorism and anti-Arab hate crimes, and who before Yitzhak Rabin's assassination held up an emblem from the then-prime minister's car, declaring "we got to his car and we'll get to him too."
And, among others, there is Benzi Gopstein, head of the extremist Lehava organization, whose protests against Arab-Jewish marriages often end in fistfights and worse.
Kahane's legacy in Israel has literally been written in blood.
In 1982, a Kahane follower, Baltimore-born Alan Goodman, wearing his IDF basic-training uniform and armed with his standard-issue M16 assault rifle, opened fire on Muslims in the courtyard of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, killing one and wounding 11. Goodman served 15 years of a life sentence.
In 1994, Kahane disciple Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn native who moved to the settlement of Kiryat Arba, murdered 29 Muslim's in Hebron's sacred Cave of the Patriarchs, before he was beaten to death by survivors of the shooting.
Most recently, Kahane's grandson Meir Ettinger, suspected of leading an underground group of young settlers believed responsible for a wave of attacks West Bank Palestinians, reportedly came to the aid of a group of then-fugitive teenagers suspected of an October stone-throwing ambush which killed Aisha Rabi, a Palestinian mother of nine.
Netanyahu has been pointedly silent over the attack.
Meir Kahane's one-term legislative legacy is terrifying as well.
Last week, in a Yedioth Ahronoth op-ed on Netanyahu’s pursuit of Otzma titled “The Disgrace of Kahanism,” television journalist Nadav Eyal compiled a list of the bills Kahane proposed – a possible indication of what could be in store if Otzma reaches the Knesset:
- Revocation of the citizenship of all non-Jewish Israelis.
- Expulsion of non-Jews from Jerusalem.
- Eventual imposition of slavery on Arabs and other non-Jews.
- Prohibition of contact between Jews and Arabs, including sexual relations.
- Segregated beaches.
- Prohibition of non-Jews living in Jewish neighborhoods.
- Forced dissolution of all intermarriages.
Meantime, Israel Hayom is keeping up the pressure. "Without a merger, the left will win!" a blue-white banner headline read on Tuesday. It echoed a recent op-ed in Adelson's pro-Bibi vehicle, which said of a merger with both Otzma and the anti-gay rights Yachad party, "Our lives depend on it."
Which tells us something about newspapers as well. If democracy dies in darkness, that's exactly where evil thrives.