Binyamin Netanyahu incurred the wrath of numerous diaspora Jewish organizations last week, including AIPAC, which almost never criticizes an Israeli PM. The issue might be a bit confusing for some, so here are some questions and answers:
Q: What did Bibi do now?
A: He pretty much guaranteed that the extreme right-wing party called Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) would have seats in the Knesset.
Q: How did he do that?
A: Under Israel’s on system, the 120 seats in the Knesset will be divided up between the parties that get more than 3.25% of the vote each, in proportion to the number of votes that they get. Votes for a party that does not reach the 3.25% cutoff will be lost. So it is to the advantage of small parties to join together. They can actually merge, or they can run jointly just for the election. In the latter case, if the joint list gets enough votes, its component parties will divide up the seats in a prearranged way afterwards, and then go their separate ways. Bibi urged and cajoled – even pressured – several small right-wing parties to include Otzma in their joint list.
A: Because of what happens after the election. After the votes are counted, since no single party will have a majority (there are fifteen parties that might pass the cutoff running), Israel’s President will ask the candidate that he believes has the best chance of making a coalition of 61 seats or more to attempt to form a coalition. This is usually the party with the most votes, but it need not be. Indeed, according to today’s polls, Gantz’ party will get the most votes, but Bibi would be more likely to be able to make a coalition with parties to the right of his Likud than Gantz with parties to his left. So Bibi wants to maximize the number of seats among his possible coalition partners, and avoid losing seats from parties that don’t make the 3.25% cutoff. Otzma was close to the cutoff, and running jointly with two other parties will ensure that it gets in. Even if it does not join Bibi’s coalition – it probably wouldn’t, and chances are, it won’t be asked – its seats (one or two) will come from the total of 120, and reduce the number available to the other side.
Q: Is the election that close?
A: It’s impossible to say this early. But with the coalition system, anything can happen.
Q: So what’s wrong with Otzma being in the Knesset? After all, it will end up with a number of seats proportional to the number of votes that it got.
A: In my opinion, nothing. That’s called “democracy.” But AIPAC, following other “centrist” Jewish groups including the ADL, and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), called the party “racist and reprehensible.” This represents a major departure for AIPAC, which until now has stayed out of Israeli politics.
Q: Doesn’t Otzma draw inspiration from the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from running for the Knesset for racism? Aren’t its views racist? Perhaps Americans don’t understand the situation here, but even Israeli David Horovitz, the centrist editor of the Times of Israel, calls it “a group of racists” and sharply criticizes Netanyahu for his “despicable” maneuver.
A: This is going to be a long answer.
“Racist” is a word beloved by many, especially in the US, where its use has become symptomatic of a national obsession. There is no word more triggering for Americans than “racist,” no accusation so damning. What it actually means in an Israeli-Arab context is not obvious. Both Jews and Arabs come in every color, from the blackest of Ethiopian Jews to the blonde hair and blue eyes of Ahed Tamimi, the celebrity slapper of IDF soldiers. There are plenty of reasons – some better than others – that Jews and Arabs dislike, distrust, and even hate each other, and “race” doesn’t come into it (although perhaps religious-based Islamic Jew-hatred comes closest to what would be called “racism”).
But the accusation of racism functions in the same way here as in the US. It’s an on-off switch, or, better, a guillotine. When a person or political party is successfully labeled “racist,” then nothing they say and no position that they advocate is acceptable. They join the class of Nazis, pogromists, assassins, and mass murderers. People are considered justified in punching them. It goes without saying that such a person or group is not given the right to be heard or – even more so – to hold political office.
This is dangerous. Political parties need to be judged by their platforms and programs, not read out of the human race. There are laws against incitement or actual violence – there don’t also need to be laws against thought-crime, or limits on democratic elections. I think it was wrong to bar Kahane from the Knesset, especially if the same sanction wasn’t applied to the inciting Haneen Zoabi, who, among other things, sailed on the 2010 flotilla to Gaza and claimed that the “activists” had no plans for violence (until video surfaced of her standing next to Turks with pipes and iron bars).
All of the Otzma Yehudit platform (Hebrew) doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t think its concept of law leaves room for secular Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, or non-Jews in Israel. I don’t want to live in a halachic state. On the other hand, it calls for Jewish settlement of all of Eretz Israel, a death penalty for terrorist murderers, reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty on the Temple Mount, encouraging Arabs to emigrate, and other things that I strongly support. Would I vote for them? No, but I don’t believe that they should be barred from the Knesset.
Q: How did Bibi respond?
A: He didn’t mention AIPAC, but pointed out the hypocrisy of left-wing critics whose own parties or candidates cooperated with anti-Zionist Arab parties or politicians.
Q: As an American-Israeli, how do you feel about AIPAC’s statement?
A: I was surprised, since they normally maintain a distance from the rough-and-tumble of Israeli politics. They were fooled. If they understood Israeli politics, they might have put this into perspective as a technical maneuver to improve Bibi’s chance of forming a coalition and becoming PM, and to prevent Gantz and the Left from doing the same. But Bibi’s opponents were screaming bloody racist murder, because in politics you exploit every opportunity to the fullest; AIPAC and the others were triggered, and jumped when they shouldn’t have.
Q: But what about all the other diaspora Jewish groups?
A: I was disappointed, because it seems to be yet another sign of the movement of the American Jewish community away from Israel, as the older generation leaves Jewish institutions and is replaced by a younger one which does not grasp the continued precarious condition of the Jewish state, and which has been fed a diet of anti-Israel propaganda beginning in elementary school.
Q: What will be with American Jews, anyway?
A: We’re losing them, and we’ll lose more as the old ones die off. Our enemies are doing great propaganda, and it dovetails perfectly with the “progressive” politics that are so popular among young people. I don’t have an answer. Maybe you do.