by Henry Siegman
There could not have been a more dishonest and carefully weasel-worded a statement than the one issued by the American Jewish Committee and endorsed by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, expressing outrage over the merger of the Israeli Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) organization with the far-right Habayit Hayehudi political party. The merger was in fact outrageous. But was not the outrage directed deliberately at a false target?
Otzma Yehudit—a successor organization to the racist Kahanist political party that was outlawed in Israel and in the United States as a terrorist organization some time ago—has long been considered utterly reprehensible. The organization advocates the ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in Palestine and the adoption in Israel of certain provisions that mirror the Nazi Nuremberg laws, such as the outlawing of sexual relations between Jews and Arabs.
But the violence, racism, and aping of the Nazis by Kahane and his successors is hardly news. To a limited extent, the followers of Kahane have practiced the violence they have preached. In Hebron in 1994, one of those followers, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers at prayer. Kahanist followers and other right-wing Israelis have elevated Goldstein to sainthood, much like Hamas treats its terrorist “martyrs.”
To this day, the Likud, Israel’s governing party headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has never once deviated from its own official position that Palestinians have no right to statehood on even one square meter anywhere in Palestine, a position that does not vary from Kahane’s party all that much. Indeed, Kahane’s territorial claims do not vary at all from Netanyahu’s claims to the West Bank that he voices (only in Hebrew) whenever election time comes around, such as right now.
But none of this is news. The overwhelming majority of Israelis have always rejected Kahane’s views as reprehensible. What is news—and truly outrageous beyond words or comprehension—is that long after Kahane and his party were thrown out of Israel’s Knesset, from which its members have been banned to this day, the prime minister of Israel personally midwifed an arrangement to bring these fascists back into Israel’s political mainstream and, he hopes, to Israel’s Knesset. There—having been koshered by Netanyahu himself—they will be able to inject their poison into Israel’s bloodstream. Indeed, the prime minister postponed a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow so as not to risk jeopardizing a goal he considered more important than Israel’s security agenda with the Russians.
Yet the AJC’s and AIPAC’s statements contain not the slightest hint of this outrage, for the name Netanyahu and the role that he—and only he—played in bringing this demonic merger about never appears. Did they really think that if they focus their criticism on the merger of two like-minded organizations that have long existed in Israel without American Jews knowing much about them, and by carefully avoiding any mention of Netanyahu’s role in organizing this scandal, they would distract attention from the real culprit?
Does not AIPAC’s announcement two days later that it will have the “honor” of welcoming Netanyahu to its forthcoming annual gathering in Washington D.C. suggest this was indeed the purpose of their misdirected anger?
Netanyahu is hardly a crusader for democracy. He will likely be indicted by Israel’s attorney general following a hearing and he is desperate to avoid a jail sentence that only reelection can spare him. Every additional right-wing vote in the coming election and in the Knesset could make a major difference for him.
And yet, how can any of that explain so egregious a betrayal of principles that ridicules the claim that Israel is a Jewish and democratic creation? Netanyahu has also embraced anti-Semitic leaders of Central European countries, and the leaders of organizations with fascist and anti-Semitic parentage in Austria and Italy. He reportedly sent two Israeli experts to help Hungary’s Viktor Orbán organize a three-year anti-Semitic campaign targeting George Soros.
Such behavior can only be the result of an uncontrollable and fatal personality flaw, one that commentators in Israel often write about—his manic pursuit of political power. Netanyahu has come to believe that when he is referred to mockingly by his critics as King Bibi, it is actually intended as a compliment. That conceit is in turn reinforced by a deep personal weakness that drives him to be seen as a “strong” leader by the “strong leaders” he admires, virtually every one of whom is authoritarian or anti-Semitic or both. Not one of them in that bunch, including America’s president, values democracy or universal human rights.
It’s difficult to understand what has moved so many in American Jewish establishment organizations to accept behavior in Israel that they condemned and actively opposed in their earlier incarnations when they battled for Jewish rights in America. Every one of the major defense agencies—the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress (which I headed for 16 years), and the Anti-Defamation League—devoted a major part of its energies and resources to preserving the separation of church and state that defined democratic governance. The best and brightest of the Zionist founding fathers also advocated that kind of separation of religion and state for the Jewish state, but they lost that battle. When the state is not a limited instrumental entity, but is instead deified, as the State of Israel has now become, it is only a matter of time before democracy is forfeited.
Bret Stephens of The New York Times wrote that when the final chapter of Netanyahu’s life is written, he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel. But that would hardly do justice to the man. He is far more likely to go down, and I mean down, as the Trump of Israel. The true measure of Netanyahu, and of the unspeakable damage he and his American supporters have done to his country, is that he and most Israelis will see the comparison as a compliment.
Henry Siegman is president emeritus of the U.S./Middle East Project and a past senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a visiting research professor at SOAS and formerly headed the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.