Until recently in Israeli politics, the extremist Otzma Yehudit party served as a useful foil, allowing other right-wing parties to look reasonable by contrast. Now, the party and its hateful, violent ideology could be entering the political mainstream thanks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a move that even some of his staunchest backers won’t defend.
The leaders of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) are disciples of U.S.-born rabbi Meir Kahane, whose original party, Kach, was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s and later listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Kahane advocated the annexation of the Palestinian territories—involving the mass expulsion of Arabs and limiting the rights of those who remained—banning intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, and replacing Israel’s democratic government with a Jewish theocracy. He was assassinated in 1990.
The modern incarnation of the party has undergone an “alt right”–style rebranding but hasn’t strayed too far from its Kahanist roots. It still supports the annexation of the Palestinian territories, canceling the Oslo Accords, and taking over the Temple Mount, and it calls, vaguely, for expelling “enemies” of Israel. Some of its leaders hold regular celebrations in honor of Baruch Goldstein, the Kahanist who massacred 29 Palestinians at a mosque in Hebron in 1994. Three of the party’s four leaders have been arrested for incitements to violence, including posting photos of Arab politicians with nooses around their necks. The party currently holds no seats in the Knesset, having failed to pass the 3.25 percent threshold in 2015.
Last week, Netanyahu orchestrated a merger between Otzma Yehudit and Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), another small pro-settlement party, potentially bringing them into the Knesset as part of his right-wing government coalition after April’s elections.
Why is Netanyahu doing this? Wracked by personal scandals and a seemingly endless corruption investigation, he’s probably getting nervous about the election. Polls show that a new centrist alliance led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid is poised to win more votes than Netanyahu’s Likud. That doesn’t mean Netanyahu himself will lose—Israeli prime ministers always govern by coalition—but he can’t afford to have too many right-wing votes spread out among lots of tiny parties that might not clear the threshold to enter the Knesset. It also wouldn’t be the first time he appealed to racism in the final days of a campaign.
Still, a move this controversial is risky. One Bayit Yehudi candidate resigned from the party in protest after the merger. One prominent Orthodox rabbi condemned the alliance, comparing Otzma Yehudit’s policies to the Nazi Nuremberg laws.
Netanyahu’s new partners were criticized in the U.S. as well, and not just by his usual critics. The American Jewish Committee issued a statement calling Otzma Yehudit’s views “reprehensible,” adding that they “do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee endorsed that statement, saying it has a “longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.” While AJC’s statement noted that mainstream Israeli parties have rejected the Kahanists in the past, it notably did not explicitly criticize Netanyahu, who is scheduled to speak at AIPAC’s annual conference in March. Still, it is rare for these organizations, which normally don’t comment on internal Israeli politics, to distance themselves from a decision by the prime minister.
At a time when open criticism of Israel is becoming increasingly mainstream in American politics, Netanyahu is responding by lurching ever further toward the far right.