Biden administration and Israel lobby in a panic following Netanyahu’s far-right election sweep

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  November 3, 2022

Israel’s boosters across the political spectrum are panicking over the far-right’s victory in Israel’s election, and the reactions are telling.

As the results of the election in Israel are being finalized – an election wherein millions of Palestinians living under Israeli dominance have no say – consternation outside of Israel among its supporters is ballooning. The reactions from Israel’s boosters are telling.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, a man almost as slavishly devoted to Israel as his predecessor, David Friedman, said, “It’s too early to predict the precise makeup of the coalition until all votes are counted.” But he “intends to keep working with Israel’s government on the two countries’ shared interests and values.”

Those interests and values, as reflected in what is certain to be the second largest party in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new governing coalition, include the most blatant racism, clear fascism, extreme hostility to LGBTQ+ people, and a leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir so radical that, in 2007, he was convicted by an Israeli court, of incitement to racism and support for a terrorist group. 

Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party joined the Religious Zionism bloc headed by fellow fascist, Bezalel Smotrich along with the aggressively anti-queer Noam party. Opposition to LGBTQ+ rights is, quite explicitly, Noam’s primary agenda. They have a very enthusiastic partner in Smotrich who, in 2015, called himself a “proud homophobe.”

The ultra-nationalism of the Religious Zionism bloc presents obvious difficulties for Western governments and for Israel’s advocates in those countries. And most are not as blindly loving as Nides.

Even the United States State Department is nervous. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters, “We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”

Coming from Price, that is a statement of near-panic. Expressing concern that Israel would have a government that even the United States couldn’t pretend was democratic is almost unthinkable for the State Department. And they’re not alone.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) warned Netanyahu in September, that “if he forms a government after the Nov. 1 elections that includes right-wing extremists, it could harm U.S.-Israel bilateral relations.” He expressed ‘serious concerns’ over the presence of ‘extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben Gvir’ in a potential future government.” Menendez is one of AIPAC’s most dependable people in the Senate on either side of the aisle, so this was important. 

The administration is even hinting that it might boycott Ben-Gvir. While this seems unlikely given the obvious political implications (just imagine what AIPAC, the Republicans, and even many Democrats will do if the U.S. government drops the dreaded “B” word on Israel), it is certainly possible that the U.S. will simply avoid any contact with Ben-Gvir, a strategy they can only pursue if Netanyahu gives the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party a ministry that doesn’t deal much with foreign countries.

Other governments are just as worried about how to deal with the far-right nature of the incoming Israeli government. Just over a week ago, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed warned Netanyahu that including Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in Netanyahu’s government risked sundering ties with the UAE in addition to the Abraham Accords more broadly, according to an Israeli official who spoke to the Times of Israel.

An unidentified “foreign diplomat” told the Israeli daily Haaretz, “If Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are appointed as ministers in the next government, I have no doubt that their counterparts in my country will sever contacts with them and no new cooperation will be advanced with the ministries they will head.”

And it wasn’t only governments that were highly agitated about Israel’s next government. Jeremy Ben-Ami, leader of the liberal Zionist J Street, tweeted, “Ben-Gvir & fellow ultranationalist Bezalel Smotrich raise the specter of a gov’t willing to strip Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens of rights, weaken the judiciary, short-circuit Netanyahu’s legal charges & ratchet up intercommunal tensions and violations of Palestinian rights… This is a moment of truth and of choice… Our loyalty is to our values, to Israel’s founding ideals and to a vision of a world rooted in equality and justice.”

While it’s easy to challenge J Street on whether such a vision is compatible with a “Jewish state,” it is clear that Ben-Ami recognizes the threat Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and their fellows pose to the increasingly imaginary concept of a “liberal Israel.”

J Street was not alone. Americans for Peace Now went ahead and stated that they would be boycotting the new government. “We will not meet with Ben Gvir. We will not meet with Smotrich. We will not meet with representatives of a government in which they serve. We are saying it loud and clear, because now is not the time to pretend that everything is ok and this government will be fine.” 

While various advocates for Palestinian rights had many comments on the elections, it was largely of a different tone, one that was not shocked or even angry about the outcome but rather used the election to demonstrate what the Israeli apartheid looks like. Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi might have summed it up best, tweeting, “Israel is a violent settler state. When it comes to complete domination of Palestinians, there is no left, right and center, there is one maximalist position that seeks the theft of land, homes and resources with as little left to the native population as possible.” 

Not all American supporters of Israel were disturbed by the election’s outcome. Aside from Nides, there was this comment from the Jewish Federations of North America: “The Jewish Federations of North America respect and salute Israel’s vibrant democratic process, which allows all Israelis a voice and vote in forming their government.”

AIPAC tweeted its support as well. “The Jewish state is a robust democracy that shares America’s interests and values. We look forward to working with the U.S. administration and Democrats and Republicans in Congress to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Still, while the Federation, AIPAC, and some other groups may be comfortable with business as usual with an Israeli government that no longer bothers to even vaguely conceal its violent racism, it’s clear that most pro-Israel groups recognize that the new Netanyahu government is going to cause significant problems for them. 

There will be no way to disguise the fact that the Religious Zionism party will be the second largest in Netanyahu’s coalition. Perhaps no one made that clearer than former “lawyer for Israel” Dennis Ross writing with his colleague at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a right wing, pro-Israel think tank created by AIPAC). They wrote, “we cannot remain silent knowing the enormous impact that the words and actions of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich as senior ministers would have on the US-Israeli relationship. That relationship is too precious and important to both countries and the Middle East as a whole—given Iranian threats—for it to be harmed.”

That’s panic. Those are the words of men who have made a living presenting an apartheid state as a liberal democracy and are now faced with such blatant racism in that country’s government that they know they can’t cover it up. Ross and Makovsky know very well that Ben Gvir and Smotrich are not going to be the shameful secret of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, but its radical megaphone, no matter how hard they try to tone it down. 

It’s not something to wish for, as Palestinians are going to face even greater violence than they already have been with these unabashed and uncompromising racists in such a powerful position. That will make it even more important that supporters of Palestinian rights and freedom capitalize on the increasingly visible face of Israeli apartheid. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics