Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provoked domestic and international outcry, including rare criticism from America’s largest pro-Israel lobbying group, after engineering a pact last week with an ultra right-wing party that has been called “racist and reprehensible.”
The Jewish Power Party (or Otzma Yehudit) “must not be legitimized,” the Washington D.C.-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) said in statement. “Otzma Yehudit’s hatred is not a reflection of the values of the state of Israel was founded upon, and it should be rejected.”
AIPAC’s condemnation followed Netanyahu’s engineering of a deal that will see Jewish Power run on a joint ticket with another far-right party, Jewish Home, in Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9. Like U.S. President Donald Trump—whose Middle East policies Netanyahu has staunchly supported—the Israeli prime minister has long courted his country’s far right. Unlike in the U.S., however, Israel’s 120-seat Knesset contains a multitude of parties and the ultranationalist Jewish Home is part of the ruling right-wing religious bloc dominated by Netanyahu’s Likud.
The objections to Netanyahu’s latest attempt to stretch that coalition even further to the right comes as he prepares to contest what is expected to be one of Israel’s most closely fought elections in years. Former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) head Benny Gantz—who joined forces with former news anchor Yair Lapid in a centrist alliance on Feb. 21—poses a credible threat to Netanyahu’s “Mr. Security” image. Meanwhile, the country’s Attorney General is this week expected to announce whether he will file corruption charges against the prime minister.
Here’s what to know about Jewish Power’s partnership with Jewish Home, and how it might impact Israel’s upcoming elections.
Why is the Jewish Power Party so controversial?
Established in 2012, Jewish Power was formed by followers of the late Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who had repeatedly advocated for the forcible expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.
Their party is considered a successor to Kahane’s Kach Party, which the U.S. deemed a terrorist organization and which Israel banned for its racist policies four years after it first entered the Knesset in 1984.
Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990, but Jewish Power’s pact with Jewish Home opens a way back to the Knesset for his followers. Current key figures in Jewish Power have labelled homosexuality a “disease of choice” and campaigned against marriages between Jews and non-Jews. In a recent interview, prominent member Itamar Ben Gvir told the Times of Israel that Jewish Power was not calling to expel all Arabs—only those “disloyal” to Israel. In 2007, he was convicted of inciting racism for holding aloft a sign saying “Expel the Arab enemy” at a protest.
How is Netanyahu involved in Jewish Power’s new alliance?
Rather than dealing directly with Jewish Power, Netanyahu incentivized the slightly less extreme far right wing groups that are part of his coalition to unite with it.
“If you don’t unite, you won’t pass the electoral threshold, the right-wing bloc will lose and Gantz will form a left-wing government with the support of the Arab parties,” he tweeted last week to the leaders of Jewish Power, Jewish Home, and the National Union—another right wing party.
Alone, Jewish Power is unlikely to surpass the 3.25% of the overall vote required to enter the Knesset, and after two prominent members left to form a breakaway party in December, polls showed the Jewish Home would not make it over the minimum threshold, either. Netanyahu’s push for them to run jointly ensures his coalition can reap the benefit of the tens of thousands of votes that would have gone to the two groups without them making it over the line.
It is a “purely political calculation designed to increase the likelihood of the bloc under his leadership having a political majority,” says Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based think tank Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). “En route to achieving this political goal, he proved that he has few moral inhibitions in terms of paving the way into the Knesset for a small but racist and illegitimate political party.”
How have people in Israel and the U.S. reacted to the pact?
In addition to AIPAC condemnation—which has rarely criticized Netanyahu over the course of his 13 years in power—the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and at least two prominent Jewish members of the U.S. congress have spoken out against the prime minister’s role in the deal with Jewish Power. Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a tweet called the promotion of “an avowedly racist party” a “betrayal of Israeli democracy and of Israel’s friends and supporters.” Even Netanyahu ally Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said there was “a lot of concern” among American Jews at Netanyahu’s actions, Haaeretz reports.
In Israel, Netanyahu on Twitter hit back at what he referred to as “hypocrisy and double standards by the left,” whom he accused of putting “extremist Islamists into the Knesset to create a bloc that would overtake the right.” Meanwhile, scores of Modern Orthodox rabbis called his pact, which risks bringing supporters of Kahane back into the Knesset, a “lamentable failure.”
What concessions will Netanyahu have to make to the far right if he wins?
The IDI’s Plesner says Jewish Home and Jewish Power are not going to function as one party in parliament, only for the election, so it’s “a very unlikely scenario” the racist party will enter a coalition with Netanyahu should he win the election. But the joint far-right ticket could take as many as five seats in the Knesset, according to Israeli opinion polls cited by Reuters. That would significantly strengthen the hand of Jewish Home, following reports Netanyahu promised the party control of the housing and education ministries, as well as two seats in the security cabinet.
While less extreme than Jewish Power, many of Jewish Home’s supporters also follow a messianic, fundamentalist version of Judaism.
“They would like to implement the halakhah (religious law) as the law of the country. Their attitude towards Arabs is as if they don’t belong in the place—at best, they can live there as long as they abide by what the Jews want them to do,” says Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University, London and a senior research fellow at the think tank Chatham House.
Jewish Home is “dangerous to Israeli democracy, which is in a very fluid or fragile state right now,” he adds.