This Time, AIPAC Stays Silent on Netanyahu's Alliance With Far-right, Anti-gay Party

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Otzma Yehudit's campaign poster showing Itamar Ben-Gvir (top) and Benjamin Netanyahu. The poster says: "Only Ben-Gvir will save Bibi."
Otzma Yehudit's campaign poster showing Itamar Ben-Gvir (top) and Benjamin Netanyahu. The poster says: "Only Ben-Gvir will save Bibi."Credit: Ofer Vaknin

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has allied his Likud party with the far-right political party Otzma Yehudit for the second time in two years, yet this time around two major American-Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, have not reacted. The first time, in 2019, both sharply criticized Netanyahu’s legitimization of an extremist party whose platform is based on anti-Arab racism.

Otzma Yehudit was founded by former disciples and political descendants of Meir Kahane, the American-rabbi-turned-Knesset-member whose Kach party was banned from running in the 1988 election. In 2019, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel organization in Washington, stated that they “have a long-standing policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”

Yet when asked about last week’s agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism, an alliance of parties that includes Otzma Yehudit and the openly homophobic Noam party, an AIPAC spokesperson said: “We will have no further comment.”

The American Jewish Committee, one of the oldest and most significant Jewish advocacy groups in America, also described Otzma Yehudit in 2019 as “reprehensible,” and noted that Israel’s major parties historically refused to cooperate with such extremist forces. This time, the AJC stated that it “has full confidence in the well-established Israeli judicial review process regarding electoral participation. That’s where the ultimate decisions lie.”

Asked whether it would respect the same due process if the leader of a European country forms an alliance with an antisemitic party, the AJC did not respond.

Last week, Likud signed a “vote-sharing agreement” with Religious Zionism for the second time in two years. Under Israel’s electoral system, parties can agree to combine “surplus” votes that amount to less than a full Knesset seat. If the aggregate adds up to an extra seat, it generally goes to the party with the greater number of surplus votes.

Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

Dov Waxman, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation chair in Israel Studies at UCLA, suspects the reluctance to condemn the alliance this time around could stem from caution, as the Biden administration’s relationship with the Israeli government remains an open question.

At this time, the Jewish organizations may be leery of giving ammunition to critics of Israel and Netanyahu: This is especially pertinent to AIPAC, “which is focused narrowly on ensuring the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Waxman tells Haaretz. “They may not want to feed the narrative that there will be some crisis or focus criticism on Netanyahu, given it may fuel the narrative that Biden isn’t happy with Netanyahu.”

In 2019, Netanyahu hit back at critics of the far-right alliance, accusing them of hypocritically using the double standards of the left. Waxman explains that AIPAC and AJC didn’t criticize Netanyahu himself two years ago but Otzma Yehudit, noting that the current institutional silence is somewhat of a “reversion to the norm,” where they remain silent on domestic Israeli matters that tend to alienate American Jews.

This is not to say that there has been complete radio silence among the American-Jewish establishment on the matter. The Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobby promoting pro-Israel candidates in the Democratic Party, last week condemned the “shameful” agreement, adding that “their racist beliefs are completely at odds with the values of the State of Israel and should have no place in Israeli institutions.”

Waxman says he believes Netanyahu is aware of the American-Jewish public’s concerns, and that the new agreement shows that the American-Jewish community is not one of the prime minister’s priorities.

“Netanyahu long ago wrote off liberal American Jews as unreliable, feckless partners for Israel. Not just this, but so many things he’s done since 2015 have indicated a disregard for the concerns of the vast majority of American Jews,” he says. He adds that, in his opinion, Netanyahu has been more acutely concerned with the minority of right-wing American Jews and more broadly concerned with evangelical Christians – and with staying in power, and out of jail.

Netanyahu at an AJC conferenceCredit: Emil Salman

“His general attitude is to pursue his own political survival at whatever the cost, even at the cost of his own legacy. More broadly in terms of his relationship with American Jewry, he has written off most American Jews as assimilated and not committed to their Jewishness or to Israel, viewing their criticism as an indication of their disloyalty,” Waxman says. “He’s made a strategic calculation that American Jews make up a tiny fraction of the American population and the more populous evangelical Christians are willing to back right-wing Israeli governments uncritically. [His] actions have demonstrated that attitude time and time again.”

Establishment Jewish organizations such as AIPAC and AJC are caught in an uncomfortable spot between an Israeli government felt to be dismissive of American-Jewish concerns and American Jews increasingly critical of Israeli policies, Waxman says.

“The traditional stance of establishment organizations like AIPAC and AJC has been to support Israel and avoid any criticism, and back Israeli policy in the court of public opinion. It’s becoming an increasingly difficult balancing act to retain the support of American Jews who are becoming more critical of Israel, while avoiding criticism of the Israeli government,” he says, adding that Netanyahu himself has not helped in this regard.

“Think back to banning Democratic members of Congress from entering Israel,” he says, referring to the 2019 decision to bar Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. “AIPAC wasn’t supportive of this. They knew it was going to be [viewed] poorly not only by American Jews but by Democratic members of Congress.

“Netanyahu going to Congress to oppose the Iran nuclear deal didn’t help AIPAC’s work of trying to prevent its passage in Congress,” Waxman continues. Netanyahu believes he has a better grasp of American politics and public opinion than these organizations, Waxman says, so he’s less willing to pay heed to their advice. “They have to be attentive to the feelings and attitudes of American Jews – he doesn’t. He doesn’t believe American Jews are Israel’s most essential allies in the United States,” he notes.

However, Waxman’s gut sense is there’s been less vocal outrage within the greater American-Jewish community over Netanyahu’s alliance with Otzma Yehudit this time around, because they have long since given up on the Israeli premier.

“It’s been one thing after another:  his battles with the Obama administration, his comments on Arab voters flocking to the polls in droves. These attitudes are baked in – they know who he is, they won’t be particularly shocked or outraged by anything he does at this point,” he says.

Waxman also echoes the similarities between the right wing in Israel and the United States being taken over by extremists.

“Netanyahu is enabled to make agreements with the far right, and it’s quite similar to the Republican Party with the Proud Boys and QAnon supporters like Marjorie Taylor Greene,” he says. “In both countries, they’ve shown themselves willing to tolerate and work with far-right individuals for their own outward political interests. The traditional conservatism that both Likud and the Republican parties represented is gone.”

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