Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under heavy fire over the past week for his orchestration of a political alliance between the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) parties, the latter of which is made up of followers of the late Rabbi Kahane, a notorious racist and champion of Jewish supremacy.
Despite Kahane’s original Kach party being deemed internationally as a terrorist organization and outlawed in Israel, Netanyahu pushed the alliance after fears that without the so-called “Kahanists” in their ranks, the Jewish Home party would not be able to reach the electoral threshold, thus jeopardizing his ability to form a right-wing majority bloc after the April 9 elections.
Kahane, an American-born Israeli, openly declared that Israel could not be both Jewish and democratic, and repeatedly called for the forcible transfer of Palestinians, suggesting a payment to those Palestinians voluntarily leaving Israel and the occupied territories, and the forcible expulsion for anyone refusing to leave.
His followers have conducted a series of terror attacks on Palestinians and left-wing Jewish Israelis. His most notorious follower was Baruch Goldstein — the American-Israeli doctor who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994.
Netanyahu’s deal, which could pave the way for Kahanists to have a seat in the Knesset, has drawn widespread criticism from Rabbis, educators, Jewish-American organizations, US politicians, and even AIPAC, who called the Jewish Power party “racist and reprehensible.”
Even Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has called for the annexation of the West Bank and shoot-to-kill policies in Gaza, disavowed the Kahanists over the merger with his former Jewish Home party, saying “I don’t accept their positions.”
Mondoweiss spoke with Israeli journalist and blogger Yossi Gurvitz about the deal that has rocked the election cycle, how it could affect the outcome of April 9th elections, and what it means for the future of Israeli politics.
Mondoweiss: Were you surprised by the Netanyahu-backed merger of the Jewish Home and Jewish Power parties?
Gurvitz: I was shocked, but I was not surprised. Let me tell you what I mean: this was a long time coming. Basically, Netanyahu has allied with extreme right-wing MK Betzalel Smotrich, who talks about ethnically cleansing Palestinians and committing genocide. If you have this guy in your coalition, it’s only a small leap from Smotrich to Jewish Power. Netanyahu has been veering in direction of Jewish Supremacy for a long time. The Jewish Home party, not only Smotrich, has been trying to implement Kahanist policies for years now. So while yes it was shock, it was not a surprise.
Mondoweiss: Do you think the deal has strengthened Netanyahu’s chances of reelection?
Gurvitz: The volatility of the system at the moment, and before every election, makes such predictions tricky. I think this has a chance of increasing size of Netanyahu’s bloc by one or two seats. Then again, the other smaller parties in his bloc may lose enough seats to be wiped out totally. You can’t really know until the elections. The Shas party is hovering on the four-seat line, so merging the Jewish Home and Jewish Power parties, might wipe Shas or one of the other parties out.
It’s not clear what he [Netanyahu] will gain out of it. It is clear that he will not be able to lead a government on his own after elections; he needs to maximize every right wing vote in the country, including those who were considered taboo a few years ago.
Mondoweiss: What is the impact of this merger on the upcoming election, and Israeli politics in general?
Gurvitz: This is definitely moving Israeli politics to the right by legitimizing the Kahanists. We can see this already today when there was actually a debate on army radio about Baruch Goldstein and his massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. One of the leaders of the Jewish Power party, Itamar Ben Gvir, has a picture hanging in his home of Goldstein.
He has refused to remove the picture despite many requests. He was saying he didn’t put the picture up because he supported the massacre, but because Goldstein was a doctor “who saved Jewish lives.”
So politicians from Labor and Likud were actually debating this. This topic should not even be up for debate, but by Netanyahu bringing the Kahanists back into the mainstream, we are now debating whether it is acceptable to celebrate someone who massacred Palestine.
Mondoweiss: Do you think Netanyahu’s right wing bloc, despite the criticisms, is an accurate reflection of right-leaning trends within Israeli society?
Gurvitz: I will say the policies of the Kahanists are becoming more and more acceptable on the right. We’ve seen greater tolerance of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians since mainstream zionism is basically at its end. You either recognize the Palestinians and want them to have their own state or accept a one state solution, or you try ignore them, or as Smotrich and others advocate for, you wipe them out. This position is becoming more acceptable to talk about. I think most people would reject outright killing, but they would support home demolitions and forced expulsion, which is just the gateway to the former.
Mondoweiss: There has been criticism from AIPAC and U.S. senators, saying the merger legitimizes racists and put them into the Knesset. What do you say to this, given the fact that the Israeli knesset is already filled with bonafide racists who advocate for the oppression of Palestinians?
Gurvitz: This phenomenon of criticizing extremists while supporting other, more closeted racist policies, is what we are seeing in israeli society. AIPAC cannot be openly racist, it can support policies that are racist, as long as they aren’t named as such. So if you look at basically everything the IDF has been doing in the West Bank for past 50 years, as long as they say it’s temporary and for security, you can somehow support it. But once it becomes a matter of open racism, it changes. The Kahanists aren’t just about hating Palestinians, they hate all non-Jews, they attack churches as well. So you can’t support this and then hide behind “security” reasons.
Mondoweiss: Netanyahu’s government and the Israeli state, since its founding, have been enacting racist policies against Palestinians and even non-European Jews. So why is everyone suddenly shocked by this deal? Do you think it’s genuine outrage, or just for show?
Gurvitz: I do believe people are genuinely shocked. Many Jewish liberals are genuinely shocked, because this is the big taboo, it is openly saying Israel is a racist entity, and racism has a place in its parliament. Whenever Kahane used to come to speak in the Knesset, everyone would leave the hall.
Mondoweiss: But what is the difference between the Kahanists and people like Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, who call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, just in more “diplomatic” ways?
Gurvit: Yes, it is not different from Bennett or Shaked. But the tone is totally different. Naftali Bennett says we have to act as a democracy, while of course undermining the democratic process. But the Kahanists say “we are not a democracy, we are a Jewish state, and we are not bound by the laws of democracy.”
Mondoweiss: Some critics say that Netanyahu’s deal with the Kahanists will, in the least, “pull the mask” and reveal the true face of the Israeli state — similar to opinions after Trump was elected. What do you say to this?
Gurvitz: This approach assumes that once you see the face of the beast you can slay it; but what if you can’t? I think every society should have norms of what is permissible and what is not. I despise racism in all its forms: hidden and out in the open. But supporting the Kahanists is equivalent to the resurgence of the KKK gangs in the streets of the US.
What frightens me about this, is this will affect the behavior of the Israeli army, particularly in the West Bank. Soldiers will now believe, more than before, that they are allowed to kill Palestinians with full impunity. Bringing the Kahanists back into the fold of Israeli politics is legitimizing violence, racist violence, against Palestinians and all non-Jews.
Mondoweiss: If Netanyahu wins in April and forms this bloc, do you think the U.S. or Israeli politicians who have condemned his support of the Kahanists would take any actual measures against the premiere?
Gurvitz: I don’t think any action will be taken, assuming Netanyahu actually manages to create a coalition, which at the moment is questionable. Assuming he or any other Likud member manages to keep Kahanists in coalition, they likely won’t face any huge repercussions. No country will return its ambassador, no one will shut down its embassy — unless there is major violence that occurs as a result.
Mondoweiss: What will the long and short term impact be on Israeli and Palestinian society if Netanyahu wins in April and sees this bloc through?
Gurvitz: Israeli society would see more problems. Now you have to fight against positions that were considered indefensible a week ago; now you have to fight and argue that someone who commits a massacre should be denounced. If these people go after high governmental ministerial positions, it will legitimize Israel’s decline into an overt anti-democracy, and hopefully, at the same time it will radicalise what remains of the left in Israel.
What we will see in the West Bank is more settler violence, and even less attempts by the army and the police to reign in this violence. They are not doing a good job as it is, and they are likely to do a worse job if there are Kahanists in power.