Biden officials were ‘very upset’ with U.S. Jewish leaders for silence on Ben-Gvir

Itamar Ben-Gvir being escorted out of the Knesset (Ilia Yefimovich - APA Images)

Phillip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  November 6, 2022 

In light of the ascendancy of the far-rightwing Religious Zionism party to Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, the Biden administration will likely avoid dealing with Ben Gvir and keep doing business as usual with the Israeli government.

The Biden administration was “very upset” with U.S. Jewish groups for not coming out strongly before the Israeli election against the racist/fascistic politician Itamar Ben-Gvir and his extremist political party, says David Makovsky, a former State Department aide and stalwart figure in the Israel lobby in Washington.

Ben-Gvir’s ultra-rightwing Religious Zionism party was the third largest vote getter in the November 1 election, with 14 parliamentary seats, and is poised to bring Benjamin Netanyahu back as prime minister.

“No one wanted to talk about this publicly,” Makovsky reports. “I know there were a lot of people in the Biden administration that privately were very upset. They felt the American Jewish community was silent about Ben-Gvir in the run-up to the Israeli election. But I think a lot of people also felt that this would play into Ben-Gvir’s hands, that he would say I’m an underdog against an array of powerful people. So it might have boosted him.”

Makovsky spoke at an election panel held by the Israel lobby group Democratic Majority for Israel on Friday.

Since the election, many pro-Israel Jewish groups have issued statements of concern about the inclusion of the racist party but have also congratulated Netanyahu on his return and indicated they’re happy to do business as usual with the “Jewish state.” Even J Street issued a statement, respecting the results while condemning the Religious Zionism party.

Only Americans for Peace Now has said that it will boycott the Israeli government, refusing to meet with it, if it includes Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and their racist, homophobic faction.

Makovsky and fellow insider Dennis Ross initially took a similar line to Americans for Peace Now, writing after the election at Washington Institute for Near East Policy that Netanyahu should form a broad-based government that excludes the Religious Zionism Party because the party’s inclusion would arm Israel’s critics.

But in Friday’s webinar, Makovsky had managed to wrap his head around Religious Zionism. He said that the party was likely to be entrenched in the new government, and the best that could be hoped for was that international pressure would keep Netanyahu from giving Ben-Gvir the police ministry or any other portfolio that deals with “security” issues involving Palestinians — whom Ben-Gvir openly derides. Makovsky said that in the coming days, Netanyahu will exhibit the sense not to give Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted of anti-Palestinian incitement several times, any power over the most inflammatory issue in the Middle East– Israeli encroachment on the Haram-al-Sharif, the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

“I have to believe… [Netanyahu] understands that now,” Makovsky said. “He will come up with an alternative ministry for him.”

Going to bat for Israel, Makovsky said that the country is a “resilient” one that has survived far worse challenges, and it will survive Ben-Gvir too.

Makovsky said the U.S. government is likely to treat Ben-Gvir and the rest of his party as it did Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli Defense Minister, after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in Beirut in 1982, when Sharon was found to be responsible for allowing the killings of several hundreds or thousands of Palestinians. Sharon was boycotted by the U.S. government for 16 years until he became Foreign Minister under Netanyahu, Makovsky said. Then the U.S. met with him again.

Making excuses for Israel as always, Makovsky said the “best hope” is that U.S. will treat the Religious Zionism Party as “persona Ben-Gvir… It’s a Ben-Gvir problem. Not a problem with the state of Israel or the government of Israel.” The U.S. would then get on with business with the rest of the government.

“That to me seems from an Israel point of view a huge achievement if that happens,” Makovsky said.

This appears to be the playbook inside the Israel lobby. Ben-Gvir stinks but he’s not the Israeli government. Look at how the American Jewish Committee responded a day after its initial statement of concern.

“AJC looks forward to again working closely with Mr. Netanyahu to strengthen Israel’s security and place in the world, enhance the deep bonds between Israel and diaspora Jewry, and amplify the shared values that unite Israel, the United States, and our democratic allies,” said AJC CEO Ted Deutch.

The U.S. government will surely take its cue from the lobby here and work with Netanyahu. My comment of last week that the U.S. will quietly demand that Netanyahu form a coalition with rightwing opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman so he can avoid the far right now appears baseless. Netanyahu’s path to the Prime Ministership necessarily entails Religious Zionism, reporter Tal Schneider said on the Democratic Majority for Israel webinar.

Makovsky seemed terrified during the webinar, as so much of the lobby is, by the ways that Religious Zionism will arm progressive critics of Israel and Zionism. Ben-Gvir will be the “poster child” for progressives, Makovsky warned. He’s right. And Ben-Gvir is that for good reason.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-06