Who’s afraid of Netanyahu ?

(Carlos Latuff)

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  October 28, 2022

It is not Palestinians who seem most concerned about a major right-wing victory in Israeli elections next week, it is Israel’s liberal supporters in the United States. 

On November 1, Israeli citizens will go to the polls once again to elect a new government. As always, only a small percentage of Palestinians under Israeli rule—those with Israeli citizenship—will be able to vote in the election. But most Palestinians who have no say in the government that controls their lives and futures will be attacked by a sitting Israeli government that wants to prove it’s as tough as the farthest right-wing one would be.

As things stand now, Netanyahu and his likely coalition partners are just a tiny margin short of the support they would need to form the next Israeli government. But their opponents, be they led by Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz, are farther away from a majority because of their refusal to work with the largely Palestinian Hadash-Ta’al coalition. Only a very shocking result in the election or a defection from the pro-Netanyahu camp, which seems very unlikely right now, would keep Netanyahu in the opposition. 

But it is not Palestinians who are concerned about a return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office in Israel. Nor are they the ones fretting about a Netanyahu government which will undoubtedly feature even more explicit racists such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. 

No, the hand-wringing over a major right wing victory in Israel next week is largely coming from Israel’s centrist and liberal supporters in the United States. 

The most obvious sign of concern came from no less a figure than Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Axios reported that when he was in Israel in September, Menendez cautioned Netanyahu that “if he forms a government after the November 1 elections that includes right-wing extremists, it could harm U.S.-Israel bilateral relations.” According to Axios, “Menendez told Netanyahu he has ‘serious concerns’ over a possible partnership with ‘extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben Gvir’ in a potential future government,” and didn’t back down when Netanyahu clearly got angry with the senator. 

That’s no small event. Menendez is one of the most zealous pro-Israel Democrats in all of Congress. Another, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) expressed his support for Menendez, adding, “I urge Israeli political leaders from all sides of the political spectrum to ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir whose outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state.”

Some of the most prominent pro-Israel groups are just keeping their heads down. AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs all say they won’t comment on the inclusion of Ben-Gvir, or on the Israeli elections in general, although they all publicly urged Netanyahu to stay away from Ben-Gvir in 2019. The Anti-Defamation League put out a much tamer statement than they did in 2019 as well.

One exception was the Democratic Majority for Israel, which exclusively targets the growing support for Palestinian rights within the Democratic Party. According to DMFI’s board co-chairs Ann Lewis and Todd Richman, DMFI believes “that the party led by Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich should have no place in Israel’s governing coalition. Most Israelis find the views of these men abhorrent as they conflict with the country’s founding principles and the shared values that undergird the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

We can quickly dispense with the idea that these groups, much less members of Congress—none of whom support equal rights for Palestinians—are concerned about principles of democracy. But Ben-Gvir worries them and even aside from him, Netanyahu’s return itself is causing real consternation among those groups. So what is motivating that concern?

Ties to the Trumpian global right

The concern for pro-Israel groups in the United States is rooted in their connections to the Democratic Party. Even AIPAC, whose support for election deniers has strained their relationship with Democrats, recognizes that a coalition that includes Ben-Gvir and is led by Netanyahu is going to complicate matters with Democrats in Congress, and will provide an opening for more progress for advocates for Palestinian rights in the United States. 

Specifically, it will widen the opportunities for rights-based, equality-centered advocates to expose the apartheid nature of Israel. That’s good news for the Palestine solidarity movement, especially the parts that have abandoned or never supported the two-state solution. But it is challenging for liberal Zionist groups that seek to maintain Israel’s status as a Jewish state while ending its occupation of the Palestinians, a goal which can only be achieved through two states. 

Netanyahu’s close affinity with the global far right was very visible in his last few years in office. And while his sometimes close relationship with Donald Trump is now frayed, his deep ties to the Republican Party were laid bare over the course of his premiership. From his 2015 speech to Congress attacking President Barack Obama to his strong relationship with ultra-conservative Christian Zionist groups, Netanyahu has not only become strongly identified with Republicans, but is seen as a political nemesis by most Democrats. With the exception of a few extremists, like the racist television host Bill Maher, Netanyahu raises real concerns among Democrats.

As the Republican Party and the broader Conservative movement in the United States has fully and passionately embraced the European far right leader Viktor Orban, they are following Netanyahu’ lead. The problems a Netanyahu government in Israel—that country which so many Democrats endlessly remind us is our “true friend” and with whom we have an “unbreakable bond”—presents for Democrats are obvious. Any hope that they can continue to pretend that Israel is anything other than the apartheid state it has been shown to be by so many is severely compromised by the presence of so unsubtle a racist as Itamar Ben-Gvir. 

Indelicate racism

Like his ideological mentor, Meir Kahane, Ben-Gvir is a very loud racist. He is less inclined toward subtle racist digs like Netanyahu’s infamous call to right wingers that “Arab voters are coming out in droves” in 2015, and more likely to point guns at and call for attacks on Palestinians, and to draw attention to himself by riling up extremist crowds

Actions like that have been argued away, however disingenuously, as atypical of Israel, presented as the acts of a radical anti-Palestinian activist. But when the person doing those things is not just a Member of the Knesset, but a minister in the Israeli government, as Ben-Gvir is almost certain to be in the event Netanyahu forms the next government, it’s impossible to claim that he does not represent a legitimate part of both Israeli politics and culture. 

DMFI’s claim that “most Israelis” are appalled by Ben-Gvir is undermined by the fact that the Religious Zionist coalition, headed by Bezalel Smotrich and including Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, is currently projected to win 13-14 seats in the next Knesset. An August poll about a bill Ben-Gvir has proposed to deport any Israeli found to be “disloyal” to the state found “64 percent of Israelis approve of the legislation, rising to 80 percent among supporters of the right-leaning Netanyahu bloc. 47 percent of the centrist and center-left Lapid bloc voters also supported the measure.” 

While that’s not necessarily a referendum on Ben-Gvir himself, it is about his signature legislation and therefore reflects the fact that whatever the precise amount of support he has may be, he is not outside the mainstream in Israel. 

“Ben-Gvir is Kahane in the age of Twitter and his hatred and racism should have no place in any Israeli government,” Americans for Peace Now CEO Hadar Susskind said

But Kahane’s Kach party, which was officially banned in 1994, usually failed to win any seats in the Knesset, and only ever held one at any time. The Israel of 2022 is a different place. The apartheid nature of the state has deepened over more than a quarter century, and more and more Israelis see Kahane’s racist ideology—which Ben-Gvir is unabashedly carrying on—as an acceptable norm, one which should not have to be talked about in hushed tones. This is reflected in the support not only for the parties of the Religious Zionism coalition but also in the attitude of Yair Lapid, who once kicked off a campaign with a rally in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and in the words of fellow “centrist” Benny Gantz, who once bragged about the massive number of “Arabs” he’d killed. 

Given the prominence of these men, it’s impossible to argue that Ben-Gvir is much of an outlier. Certainly, he is less thoughtful, more bull-headed and reckless, and more of a racist rabble-rouser than the others who would confine their violent pursuits to orders given to police and soldiers. But if his views are more radical than those of Netanyahu, Gantz, and Lapid, it is not by anything like the orders of magnitude that some would like to portray it as. 

Netanyahu’s return, with Ben-Gvir proudly at his side, is very much Israel 2022. 

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