Too much democracy in Israel? (& Israelis still can't make up their mind about Netanyahu)

March 26, 2021

 

WHY AN ISLAMIST COULD KEEP BIBI IN POWER; OR IS A FIFTH ELECTION NOW A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY?

[Note by Tom Gross]

Pictured above: Mansour Abbas, voting in the village of Maghar in this week's general elections in "Apartheid (Not) Israel". Abbas heads the Raam party, one of several Arab parties represented in the Israeli Knesset.

Raam has the same Islamist roots as Hamas, the extremist group that runs the Gaza Strip. And yet Raam may agree to back Benjamin Netanyahu to continue as Israeli prime minister thus allowing him to stay in power following this weeks inconclusive Israeli elections, the fourth in two years.

Israeli politics, which was already overly complicated, is becoming even more so. I also think that it has less international significance, not only because global issues such as covid and climate change continue to dominate much of the world?s attention, but because the Middle East as a whole is becoming less important relative to other regions such as China and the Far East.

And despite serious continuing threats, Israel has never been more secure as it continues to increase both its public and covert good relations with more and more states both in the region and beyond, in large part thanks to Netanyahu?s policies.

There are also many fewer ideological differences than there used to be between mainstream Israeli parties of left, center and right. However, unfortunately because of Israel's overly democratic electoral system some extremists of both right and left have entered the Knesset.

I attach four articles below analyzing the election results, for those interested in the intricacies of Israeli politics. Among the authors are Haviv Rettig Gur and Jonathan Tobin, both longtime subscribers to this list.

 

ARTICLES

IS A FIFTH ELECTION NOW A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY?

Is a fifth election now a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Israel's leaders can form a government and end the deadlock. All they need is a bit of trust and a willingness to compromise. Or: Why another snap election is inevitable
By Haviv Rettig Gur
The Times of Israel
March 26, 2021

https://www.timesofisrael.com/is-a-fifth-election-now-a-self-fulfilling-prophecy

March 2020, just one year ago, seems an eon away. A pandemic separates that time from ours, with its social distancing and shuttered schools and waves of contagion and lockdown. A strategic realignment and four peace treaties took place over this year, as did a dramatic changing of the guard in Washington. A mental chasm formed by the tribulations of these strange times seems to place that period far in the past.

In Israeli politics, too, everything seemed to have changed. The 33-seat behemoth called ?Blue and White? that once challenged Israel?s longest-serving prime minister has shattered into its constituent parts.

As a new election drew close over the past month, Netanyahu seemed to hold all the cards. He was headed into election day with a well-oiled campaign (four elections in two years is good practice) and an extraordinary vaccination campaign and four peace treaties under his belt.

Election day itself also seemed to suggest a dramatic shift. Benny Gantz of Blue and White now leads a list of just eight MKs. The Arab parties were divided and Arab turnout was down. Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, the largest opposition faction, grew by just one seat while Netanyahu?s right-wing challengers Gideon Sa?ar and Naftali Bennett crashed from polling in the low twenties and high teens in Knesset seats down to six and seven respectively.

Everything had changed. Yet everything seemed to remain exactly the same.

BLOCS

Step back from the individual parties and consider them by their overlapping electorates, and all that Brownian motion averages out to very nearly zero.

Consider: Likud and Yamina together won 42 seats last year. Likud, Yamina and its offshoot Religious Zionism won 43 this time.

Blue and White won 33 seats last time. Yesh Atid and Gantz?s shrunken Blue and White, together with Sa?ar?s New Hope party whose voters mostly identified as centrists, now drew 31.

Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism won 16 seats between them in 2020; they won the same 16 on Tuesday.

The Arab parties and the left won 22 seats between them last time, 24 this time. Avigdor Liberman?s Russian-speaking hawkish-but-secularist party won seven then and seven now.

It?s as if someone had thrown half the parliament into the air in exasperation, only to watch them land in the exact same pattern. The parties may have changed, but the fundamental contours of the standoff did not. Voters seem unmoved by the passage of time and intervening events. Fresh out of a fourth election, the country seems to be plunging headlong into a fifth.

A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY

Based on the near-final results announced Thursday, it?s fair to say that no candidate has a clear path to a coalition. Or, more accurately, no one has a clear path to a coalition they?d want to be seen joining just before yet another election.

That?s the terrible secret of Tuesday?s election: There are many paths out of the deadlock and toward stability and good governance. But no one can take them.

As the anti-Netanyahu camp keeps noting, Netanyahu could resign. That would free Sa?ar to join the right-wing camp and help establish a stable and internally coherent government large enough to be free of the extremist wing of the Religious Zionism slate.

Alternatively, as the pro-Netanyahu camp keeps insisting, Gideon Sa?ar could swallow his pride - and his central promise to his voters - and join the Netanyahu government in order to avert the fresh pain and continued instability of yet another election.

There are also those in the pro-Netanyahu camp, including some of Netanyahu?s most ardent supporters over the years, like right-wing pundit Shimon Riklin and pollster Shlomo Filber, who are urging that Likud accept the support of the Islamist Ra?am party, pushing the Netanyahu coalition above the 61-seat mark and ushering in a narrow but, they hope, viable coalition - whose mere founding, they add, will convince other members of the opposition to defect, quickly swelling its ranks and releasing it from its reliance on Ra'am.

There are many such paths for those seeking stability, but all are beset by the same thorny problem: No politician can afford such compromises without a guarantee that it won't avert a new election.

SA'AR'S DILEMMA

Assume for a moment that Sa?ar is open to Likud?s demand that he return to the Likud fold. He might hypothetically be willing to consider the move if it promised to grant him a few quiet years in the cabinet to rehabilitate his position in the ruling party and try his luck in the succession contest that will follow Netanyahu?s retirement.

But even if he were willing to contemplate that path in theory, at the moment he can?t even afford to hear out a Likud offer. A fifth election is imminent. Negotiating with a Netanyahu-led Likud after promising not to do so would simply hand Likud campaign ammunition it could use to bury him in the next round.

The fear of a fifth election drives the distrust that in turn is pushing the country toward a fifth election.

BENNETT?S PREDICAMENT

The same holds true for every other player in this drama.

Media outlets have taken to counting Naftali Bennett?s Yamina party as part of the automatic Netanyahu bloc. But should they? True, Netanyahu has no viable path to a coalition without Bennett, but Bennett has nevertheless refused to say that he will join Netanyahu?s government.

Bennett is undoubtedly seeking to maximize his negotiating position with Netanyahu. It never hurts to let the other side sweat.

But Bennett?s reluctance goes deeper. He ran in Tuesday?s election as a critic of Netanyahu, his campaign message focused on Netanyahu?s management failures during the pandemic. While he never ruled out sitting in a Netanyahu government, he won his seven seats for his criticism of the prime minister.

As long as a fifth election appears imminent, Bennett cannot seem to suddenly transform into a Netanyahu cheerleader like Shas or Religious Zionism. The campaign is still underway. He must distinguish himself from Smotrich, demonstrate that his demands from Netanyahu are significant and connected to the issues he campaigned on, and still assume the negotiations will fail, taking every step along the way to ensure the public sees him earnestly holding his ground when they inevitably do.

THE RA'AM CONUNDRUM

Betzalel Smotrich, head of Religious Zionism, publicly nixed any right-wing coalition that relies on Ra?am, even if Ra'am doesn't actually join but merely abstains from voting against the coalition, thereby denying the opposition the ability to topple the government in a budget or no-confidence vote.

Smotrich?s refusal to consider cooperation, like Sa'ar's to contemplate sitting under Netanyahu, is surely rooted in principle. But Smotrich is no political fledgling. He understands the need for political compromise and knows how desperate Netanyahu is for a government ? which, as Netanyahu?s backers keep explaining, will likely have an easier time pulling in defectors once it is established.

But, again, the next election looms. Smotrich won?t win far-right votes if he is seen to compromise over Ra?am. If the next election were a long way off, if the compromise with Ra?am was a momentary thing, a single vote followed by four years of stable governance, it?s reasonable to think he might have risked it. But right before an election? How could he?

And while Smotrich can?t embrace Ra?am, Netanyahu can?t let it go.

Consider the dilemma from Netanyahu?s perspective. Ra?am isn?t just the potential deciding vote (or deciding abstention) that would form his next coalition. It holds the deciding vote on the bill set to be proposed in the new Knesset that would forbid an MK under indictment from standing for prime minister ? a bill demanded by Avigdor Liberman and other Netanyahu adversaries that would summarily remove him from the running in the next election.

Netanyahu cannot embrace Ra'am without hurting Likud at the ballot box or undermining his alliance with Religious Zionism and other right-wing forces. But he also cannot entirely rebuff Ra'am's calls for a constructive relationship, at least not without running the risk that the Muslim party will head across the aisle to more compliant partners, who will happily pay a political dividend in exchange for the votes to legislate Netanyahu out of politics.

Here again, the threat of another election becomes the cause of another election. An anti-Netanyahu bill would only enter into force in the 25th Knesset; it wouldn?t apply retroactively to the current one. If Netanyahu believed he had three or four years before he?d need to worry about the next Knesset, he could risk Smotrich?s ire to obtain the momentary help he needs to found his coalition. He could take chances.

It?s the same with Lapid, who must piece together a coalition with Bennett after the latter promised his voters not to sit under him. Or he could try to pull Bennett and Sa?ar into a coalition with Meretz and Labor ? a not impossible task in ordinary times, an extremely difficult one on the eve of an election.

It must be said: The point stands even if a government is somehow formed from the impossible arithmetic handed down by the voters. The fifth-election problem won't go away. No government formed out of this parliament is likely to have a stable, broad-based coalition propping it up. It would try to hobble along under the polarizing influence of an ever-looming snap election; it would almost certainly fail.

After Tuesday's election, Israelis are asking themselves if there?s any path forward to a viable and stable government. The answer, at least for now, appears to be no. Not because it?s hard to see what compromises are required to produce such a government, but because none of the relevant leaders trust each other enough to risk those compromises.

And, indeed, if the extraordinary shifts of the past year have failed to move the needle, why should we assume that a fifth election would do the trick? It may be time to contemplate the strange possibility that Benny Gantz, with the enthusiastic backing of his party?s seven lawmakers, may yet find himself replacing Netanyahu as prime minister when the outgoing government?s rotation deal comes due in November.

 

ISRAEL STILL CAN?T MAKE UP ITS MIND ABOUT NETANYAHU

Israel still can't make up its mind about Netanyahu
Despite his accomplishments, half the country is determined to oust the prime minister. But a possible way out is both a societal breakthrough, as well as a source of potential trouble.
By Jonathan Tobin
Jewish News Syndicate
March 24, 2021

When the first exit polls were published, it seemed as if the long stalemate had been ended. Within a couple of hours, however, the polls had been revised, and by the end of a long night and morning of counting, it turned out that the deadlock between those who wish to keep Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and those who want to get rid of him hadn?t been broken.

With 88.5 percent of the vote counted (and with approximately half a million absentee votes that could alter the electoral math still left to be tabulated), the parties supporting Netanyahu, plus one likely coalition partner, had fallen two seats short of the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a new government. By the same token, the disparate group of parties that agree on very little, but which are all pledged to oust the prime minister, were similarly short of a clear path to an alternative government.

This fourth consecutive election stalemate in two years is a discouraging outcome for the Jewish state. It?s not just an annoying waste of time. More than that, it has been estimated that the cost of holding these four votes amounted to $4.24 billion?a staggering sum for a small country that, like the rest of the world, is dealing with the economic catastrophe caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Aside from the not-inconsiderable expenses involved in staging the contest, election days are legal holidays in Israel. That costs company holiday pay, as well as a loss of productivity and sales, even though some businesses, like restaurants, benefit from people having the day off.

Then there is the plain fact that the lack of a national budget for 2020?let alone 2021?is also a blow to stability and the country?s economic well-being.

There is a national consensus that the standoff has been something of a disgrace since, among other things, the frequency of elections means that Israel has now surpassed Italy as the home of the most unstable democracy in the world. And yet, the one person who hasn?t been hurt by it is Netanyahu. The failure to form a stable government has served him fairly well since it enables him to govern without actually winning an election. Even the lack of a budget has made it easier for him since he hasn?t been hampered by the financial negotiations that would have undermined his agenda.

Indeed, in the course of the last year, Netanyahu hasn?t just managed to stay afloat. Since Israel was last forced to the polls, the prime minister had what historians may ultimately say were his two greatest accomplishments: the signing of the Abraham Accords and the successful effort to get Israelis vaccinated against COVID-19, enabling it to be the first of nations to essentially emerge from the yearlong pandemic crisis.

Any leader with two such impressive achievements to his credit might have expected to be easily re-elected. But the election results speak volumes about both his strengths and his weaknesses. That?s because it could also be said that no prime minister who was facing trial for three corruption charges and who had worn out his welcome with both the public and political colleagues after 12 consecutive years in office could reasonably presume to emerge from an election as the head of the largest party and as the only person with a chance to form a government, as is also the case with Netanyahu.

His able statesmanship and skillful governance?not to mention a national consensus behind his core positions on issues that used to divide Israel over policy towards the Palestinians, territory and settlements?have made him something of an institution. It?s no wonder that polls show that most Israelis (including many who don?t vote for him) think that he?s the most qualified person to hold the top job.

Still, his constant scheming, untrustworthiness in political negotiations and the sense of entitlement that go with having stayed in office so long with no thought of grooming a successor, let alone stepping aside for the next generation, has also fueled a rage at Netanyahu on the part of a broad cross-section of the Israeli public. It may be created by a mix of partisanship and ideology (many in the ?anybody but Bibi? camp would be similarly determined to oppose any Likud leader or non-leftist), but it is nonetheless real. His followers cannot imagine Israel being led by anyone else. And yet the fact that so many Israelis seem focused on nothing but the quest to topple him has further embittered the country?s political discourse.

Can Netanyahu find a way out of the corner into which the Israeli public has painted itself?

Talk of defectors from other parties is, as was the case last year, mooted by his supporters, but that seems even less likely this time around. Another possibility of a solution is both a laudable development as well as a potential case of staggering hypocrisy.

When the four disparate Arab factions ran together as a single party last year, they won 15 seats as the Joint Arab List. When Blue and White leader Benny Gantz spoke of his willingness to deal with that coalition of anti-Zionists?many of whom sympathize with terrorists?the Likud and others blasted the idea as something that would compromise the nation?s security.

The Joint List split when Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra?am Party that advocates the conversion of Israel into an Islamist Palestinian state, pointed out something that was quite true. Israeli Arabs have been badly served by their politicians. Many of them are corrupt and have spent their time working harder to support Palestinian efforts to undermine Israel than on trying to assist their constituents. Abbas (no relation to the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas) suggested that it was time for them to stop grandstanding in order to help allies in Ramallah and Gaza, and start doing deals with the Zionist parties in order to serve their people better.

Assuming that the current results stand up after all the votes are counted, that led to a loss of four seats for the Arabs after the Joint List won six seats and Ra?am five.

As he promised during the campaign, however, Abbas says that he is open to supporting either side of the Israeli political divide in order to advance the interests of Israeli Arabs. That opens up the possibility that one of the non-Jewish parties would become part of a government, even if it meant supporting it from outside the coalition.

If Ra?am enables Netanyahu and the Likud to govern in this fashion, the prime minister and his supporters would be open to charges of staggering hypocrisy. Then again, it would also give the lie to the canard that Israel is an ?apartheid state.?

It would also illustrate just how far the Abraham Accords and the other normalization deals between Israel, and Arab and Muslim states, have helped erode support for the century-long war on Zionism. Friendly relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are a signal to Arab voters that it?s in their interests to stop acting like auxiliaries of Palestinian terror groups.

This scenario may not happen?not the least because many of Netanyahu?s supporters won?t tolerate sitting in a government whose existence depends on the votes of those who don?t really want it to exist. It also doesn?t alter the fact that half of the country will never rest until he is finally defeated. Nor does it erase the way the prime minister?s sense of indispensability and double-dealing has fatally divided an Israeli right that might otherwise be firmly in control under almost any other leader. The mere fact that the option of a deal with an Arab party can be realistically discussed is also a tribute to how much Netanyahu has changed Israel and the Middle East.

 

ISRAEL?S ELECTION ENDED IN ANOTHER MESS. COULD AN ARAB PARTY BREAK THE DEADLOCK?

Israel?s Election Ended in Another Mess. Could an Arab Party Break the Deadlock?
In the fourth attempt, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents have a clear path to power. An Islamist party has emerged as a possible kingmaker.
By Patrick Kingsley
New York Times
March 25, 2021

JERUSALEM ? After a fourth Israeli election in two years appears to have ended in another stalemate, leaving many Israelis feeling trapped in an endless loop, there was at least one surprising result on Wednesday: An Arab political party has emerged as a potential kingmaker.

Even more surprising, the party was Raam, an Islamist group with roots in the same religious movement as Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip. For years, Raam was rarely interested in working with the Israeli leadership and, like most Arab parties, was ostracized by its Jewish counterparts.

But according to the latest vote count, Raam?s five seats hold the balance of power between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?s right-wing bloc and the motley alliance of parties that seeks to end his 12 years in power. The vote tally is not yet final, and Raam has previously suggested it would only support a government from the outside.

Still, even the possibility of Raam playing a deciding role in the formation of a coalition government is making waves in Israel. An independent Arab party has never been part of an Israeli government before, although some Arab lawmakers supported Yitzhak Rabin?s government from the outside in the 1990s.

Suddenly in a position of influence, Raam has promised to back any group that offers something suitable in return to Israel?s Arab minority, who are descended from the Palestinians who stayed after Israel?s creation in 1948 and who today form about 20 percent of the population.

?I hope to become a key man,? Mansour Abbas, the party?s leader, said in a television interview on Wednesday. In the past, he added, mainstream parties ?were excluding us and we were excluding ourselves. Today, Raam is at least challenging the political system. It is saying, ?Friends, we exist here.??

The party is not in ?anyone?s pocket,? he added. ?I am not ruling out anyone but if someone rules us out, then we will of course rule him out.?

Either way would make for a strange partnership.

If Raam backed Mr. Netanyahu?s opponents, it would likely need to work with a right-wing opposition leader, Avigdor Liberman, who has described some Arab citizens as traitors and called for them to leave the country.

If it supported the Netanyahu-led bloc, Raam would be working with a prime minister who enacted legislation that downgraded the status of the Arabic language and said that only Jews had the right to determine the nature of the Israeli state. In a previous election, Mr. Netanyahu warned of high Arab turnout as a threat to encourage his own supporters to vote.

Raam would also be cooperating with an alliance that includes far-right politicians who want to expel Arab citizens of Israel they deem ?disloyal? to the Israeli state. One of those politicians, Itamar Ben Gvir, until recently hung in his home a picture of a Jewish extremist who murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims in a West Bank mosque in 1994.

But Mr. Abbas is prepared to consider these possible associations because he believes it is the only way for Arab citizens to secure government support in the fight against the central problems assailing the Arab community ? gang violence, poverty and restrictions on their access to housing, land and planning permission.

In the past, ?Arab politicians have been onlookers in the political process in Israel,? he said in an interview with The New York Times in February. Today, he added, ?Arabs are looking for a real role in Israeli politics.?

The move would mark the culmination of a gradual process in which Arab parties and voters have grown incrementally more involved in the electoral process.

Raam, a Hebrew acronym that stands for the United Arab List, is affiliated with a branch of an Islamist movement that for years did not participate in Israeli elections. Raam was founded in 1996 after some members of that movement voted by a narrow margin to run for Parliament, an event that split the movement in two. The other branch, which Israel has outlawed and whose leader it has jailed, does not participate in elections.

Raam later joined the Joint List, a larger Arab political alliance that emerged as the third-largest party in three recent Israeli elections, in a sign of the Arab minority?s growing political sway.

Recognizing this increased importance of Arab voters, Mr. Netanyahu canvassed hard for their support during the recent election campaign.

Analysts had long predicted that an Arab party would eventually end up working in or alongside the government. But few thought that an Arab party would countenance working with the Israeli right. Fewer still imagined that party would be a conservative Islamist group like Raam.

The party separated from the Joint List in March, frustrated at how its parliamentary presence meant little without executive power, and declared itself ready to join a government of any color that promised political rewards to Arab citizens.

On Wednesday, that gamble appeared to have been rewarded. Asked whether Mr. Netanyahu would consider a government supported by Mr. Abbas, Tzachi Hanegbi, a government minister, said if a right-wing government of Zionist parties was impossible to assemble, his party would consider ?options that are currently undesirable but perhaps better than a fifth election.?

Raam?s newfound relevance constitutes ?a historical moment,? said Basha?er Fahoum-Jayoussi, the co-chairwoman of the board of the Abraham Initiatives, a nongovernmental group that promotes equality between Arabs and Jews. ?The Arab vote is not only being legitimized but the Palestinian-Arab community in Israel is being recognized as a political power with the ability to play an active and influential part in the political arena.?

The news was also greeted happily in the Negev desert, where dozens of Arab villages are threatened with demolition because they were built without authorization.

?The possibility that Abbas can pressure the government to recognize our villages stirs up emotions of optimism,? said Khalil Alamour, 55, a lawyer whose village lacks basic infrastructure like power lines and sewerage because it was built without Israeli planning permission.

Within Mr. Netanyahu?s party, there is considerable dissent to the idea of relying on Mr. Abbas. Some members fear working with ? and being held to ransom by ? a group that is ideologically opposed, for instance, to military operations in the occupied territories.

The government should not be ?dependent on a radical Muslim party,? said Danny Danon, chairman of the World Likud, the international branch of Mr. Netanyahu?s party. ?We should not be in that position.?

Among the opposition bloc, there is also disquiet at the prospect of an alliance. Some of its right-wing members already vetoed working with Arab lawmakers during an earlier round of negotiations last year. And Raam?s social stances ? it voted against a law that bans gay conversion therapy ? are at odds with the vision of left-wing opposition parties like Meretz.

?It?s going to be very challenging no matter how you look at it,? said Ms. Fahoum-Jayoussi. ?When push comes to shove, it?s still hard to see whether Mansour Abbas?s approach is a real one that he can push through.?

And some Palestinian citizens of Israel are highly skeptical of Raam?s approach. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, has accused Mr. Abbas of assenting to a relationship with the Israeli state that frames Arabs as subjects who can be bought off, rather than as citizens with equal rights.

?Mansour Abbas is capable of accepting this,? Mr. Odeh said in an interview before the election. ?But I will not.?

 

ENOUGH WITH THE HYPOCRISY OVER KNESSET OUTLIERS

Enough with the hypocrisy over Knesset outliers
A Kahane disciple won a seat, but so did a Reform rabbi and Islamists. Like America?s Congress, the Jewish state?s parliament is more diverse than most of us would like.
By Jonathan Tobin
Jewish News Syndicate
March 25, 2021

Is Israel?s reputation indelibly tainted by the presence of two new members of the Knesset with hateful views? That?s the fear that many American Jewish liberal groups are expressing in the wake of round four of the ongoing Israeli election stalemate. But those Americans who are quick to condemn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his role in smoothing the path of that pair should think about the indirect connections between their own political heroes and some of their unsavory political associates.

American Jews are also cheering the fact that Rabbi Gilad Kariv was elected to the Knesset this week on the Labor Party slate. Kariv, a member of the Reform movement, is the first non-Orthodox rabbi to sit in the Knesset, a singular victory for those who rightly lament the non-recognition of any but Orthodox clergy in a country where there is no formal separation between religion and state. While he won?t be able to do much about that problem?or implement his left-wing views about security issues?his is nonetheless a symbolic victory for the majority of American Jews who regard the pluralism issue as one that alienates them from Israel.

Most of the commentary from American groups, however, is about their horror at the strength of the old Religious Zionist Party and the fact that the 24th Knesset will have two members whose beliefs are particularly repugnant to American Jewish sensibilities.

Though its name conjures memories of the National Religious Party or Mafdal?a generally moderate group that represented Modern Orthodox Jews in the Knesset for the first few decades of Israel?s history?this group is an amalgam of several hard-right parties. It?s also interesting that it appealed to ultra-Orthodox Jews and seems to have drained support worth a seat or two away from the haredi United Torah Judaism Party.

Its success is due in no small measure to the support it got from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who it pledged to support. He did his best to ensure that some of its disparate elements didn?t run on their own and wind up ?wasting? votes for parties that couldn?t pass the 3.25 percentage of the vote threshold needed to gain entry to the Knesset.

That was good for Netanyahu?s right wing-religious alliance, but it also generated anger since the occupants of the seats the party won can be attributed to the prime minister?s help. And that means that the presence of both Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Moaz in the new Knesset are seen as Netanyahu?s doing.

Ben-Gvir is the head of the Otzma Yehudit Party that merged with Religious Zionist for this election. An advocate for expelling Arab citizens from Israel, his group has also been labeled, with good reason, as successor to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane?s openly racist Kach movement. Indeed, Ben-Gvir was excoriated for having a picture in his home of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the Kahane follower who murdered 29 Arabs in 1994 at Hebron?s Cave of the Patriarchs.

Alongside Ben-Gvir will be Avi Maoz, the head of the Noam faction, an avowedly homophobic group. Maoz has made a name for himself with incendiary rhetoric in which he has attacked Israeli gays, as well as the Reform movement?at one point likening them to the Nazis and Palestinian suicide bombers for wanting to ?destroy? Jews.

Netanyahu made it clear that neither man would be considered for any responsible post or cabinet position in his next government (assuming he is able to somehow form one after the country?s fourth consecutive electoral stalemate). While he stands fairly accused of an act of staggering cynicism in being willing to use the votes of their supporters in order to stay in power, he shrugs off such criticism as having no significance since all?s fair in love, war and politics.

Ben-Gvir?s beliefs are at odds with those of most Israelis, and that of the founding fathers of Zionism, including Ze?ev Jabotinsky, from whom Netanyahu?s Likud Party still supposedly draws inspiration. Jabotinsky was a hardliner about the territorial dimensions of the Jewish state and the author of the influential essay ?The Iron Wall.? In it, he wrote that in contrast to the foolish optimism of his Labor Zionist opponents, the Arabs would never accept the permanence of a Jewish state until they had been completely defeated. But he also advocated for full and equal rights for non-Jews, even to the point of believing it would be desirable if the deputy prime minister of a Jewish state were an Arab.

Maoz?s hostility to gays is equally out of touch with the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. Israel is the sole Middle East country where the LGBTQ community has equal rights and is a tourism destination for gay men and women. Indeed, leading Netanyahu loyalist and current Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana is the first openly gay member of the Israeli cabinet.

Once sworn into the Knesset, both Ben-Gvir and Maoz will be nuisances that Netanyahu will do his best to ignore. Still, as long as they are there, their antics will be blamed on him.

This prospect has led to angry press releases from groups like the Reform movement, the Democratic Majority for Israel and the American Jewish Committee. The left-wing rabbinic group T?ruah called for the pair to be banned from the Knesset as Kahane was after he won election to it in the 1980s.

A couple of Jewish members of Congress, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) also denounced Ben-Gvir and Maoz.

While both Israeli extremists are fair game for condemnation, it?s equally fair to ask liberal Jews about their own comfort in making common cause with extremists. After all, Cohen and Schakowsky sit in Congress alongside Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who are not only supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement but who have trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes. Both have continued to run interference for them, and liberal Jewish groups like the Reform movement are equally guilty of either winking at or turning a blind eye to the open anti-Semitism of some their ideological allies in the Black Lives Matter movement and other advocates of critical race theory and intersectionalism.

Does their hypocrisy excuse Netanyahu?s cynical attitude towards Ben-Gvir and Maoz? Not at all.

Netanyahu was dead-wrong for his role in allowing their entry into the Knesset, and all the excuses in the world about politics making strange bedfellows won?t excuse it.

Nevertheless, it is not ?whataboutism? to point out that he isn?t the only one guilty of such cynicism or for being willing to profit from connections to indefensible political allies. After all, President Joe Biden doesn?t repudiate Omar and Tlaib, and treats race-baiters on the left with the sort of deference that Netanyahu pays to his unsavory allies.

Israel?s proportional electoral system rewards extremism of all kinds, including from the ultra-Orthodox sector and the Arab community. It is to the American Jewish Committee?s credit that while condemning Ben-Gvir and Maoz, they also noted that it was equally concerning that there are members of the Knesset who don?t recognize Israel?s right to exist and support terrorist groups like Hamas, as is the case with members of the two Arab parties who are in the Knesset.

Just like American democracy, which sometimes elevates extremists from both the left and the right into the corridors of power, Israel?s system also produces electoral outliers that are an embarrassment to the country along with those worthy of respect. But it?s equally true that they are a tiny minority, and that their views will have no impact on the nation?s policies. This is a time when BDS supporters oppose the existence of a Jewish state in any borders. That?s why those who exaggerate the significance of these radicals and treat their presence in the Knesset as uniquely awful and delegitimizing Israel?s government are doing the Jewish state, its democratic system and its people a profound disservice.

 

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