Can Israel’s religious right rid itself of racists?

United Right head Rafi Peretz tries wriggling himself out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grasp and undoing the merger established before the April elections with the far-right Jewish Power Party.

al-monitor Israeli extreme right-wing activist Michael Ben-Ari, leader of the Jewish Power Party, attends a party election campaign event in Bat Yam, Israel, April 6, 2019. Photo by Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

Israeli elections

Jul 9, 2019

On July 4, the extreme right-wing Jewish Power Party launched its election campaign, centered on the slogan “This Time We Won’t Compromise.” Heading the party of the late nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane’s followers is former Knesset member Michael Ben Ari, whom the high court banned from running in the last election in April on the grounds that he has incited to violence. However, the high court authorized the candidacy of attorney Itamar ben Gvir, although his views and ideological acts accord with Ben Ari’s views and actions. 

In his speech at the launch conference, Ben Ari wondered what is racist in the demand to transfer all the Arabs from the “earth of the land of Israel,” as he called it. “We want to resettle our enemies in their countries,” he said. “They said that’s why they disqualified me, they told me ‘why did you say that.’ … I said that we’ll give them water, a sandwich and we’ll find their countries of origin. … They told me that it’s racism.” 

With the “No Compromise” campaign Kahane’s acolytes wish to fix the mistake, as they see it, of the alliance with HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union on the list of the United Right, which received five seats, and left their representative, Ben Gvir, outside of the Knesset. As one might recall, it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who forcibly pushed Jewish Power into the arms of HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union in order to prevent a loss of votes on the right, and thus legitimized a racist party until then considered despicable. 

Jewish Power’s independent campaign launch was undertaken following the sense that the chairman of the United Right, Minister of Education Rabbi Rafi Peretz, has learned from the partnership with Kahane’s students and understood the enormous damage done to the list by running with them. On the morning of the conference it was reported that Peretz is not interested in including the right-wing extremist Baruch Marzel of Jewish Power on the United Right list for the September elections. Jewish Power argues, however, that their agreement to run with HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union on a joint list in April’s election was what saved these two parties from defeat and won Peretz and National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich ministerial roles and places in the Security Cabinet. 

Ben Gvir said at the campaign launch, “They ask me what’s the difference between you and Bezalel Smotrich and the answer is clear. Bezalel is a great transportation minister, but we would not join a government that pays protection money to Hamas.” As he sees it, Peretz and Smotrich sold out their principles for a seat in the government and a place in the Cabinet. He was referring to Netanyahu's approval of the transfer of Qatari financial aid to Gaza.

Ben Gvir further said of HaBayit HaYehudi, “Who are you to reject Baruch Marzel? Who are you to reject Bentzi Gopstein [chairman of the anti-assimilation far-right group Lehava]? We don’t compromise on the land of Israel and not on places in the Knesset, not on Norwegian law and not on a Thai law.” 

Indeed, another complaint from Jewish Power involving HaBayit HaYehudi refers to the terms of the pre-election merger Peretz committed to, including the principle of the so-called Norwegian Law. According to this principle, a parliamentarian appointed minister resigns from the parliament. Jewish Power protests Peretz’s refusal to carry out the terms, according to which he, as education minister, and Smotrich, as transportation minister, would resign from the Knesset and allow the next two candidates on the United Right list, Orit Struck of HaBayit HaYehudi and Ben Gvir, to enter the Knesset. Ben Gvir was also promised to be appointed chairman of the Constitution and Law committee of the Knesset. This arrangement received the blessing of Netanyahu before the April election; he, as mentioned, wove together the despicable union and didn’t mind that Ben Gvir — who had gloried in his youth in tearing off the Mercedes emblem from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s official car and threatened that next time he and his friends would reach the prime minister himself — would be appointed chairman of the important committee that debates the law of the State of Israel. 

In the end the appointment to be committee chairman didn’t happen. Peretz — whether he understood the mistake or gave in to criticism directed at him — is seeking excuses to get rid of those elements once considered stray weeds in the right’s garden plot, and now, thanks to Netanyahu, are sure they have the power to be elected to the next Knesset. 

How has Peretz managed to wriggle out of Netanyahu’s grasp, after he had sown fear among the leaders of religious Zionism and convinced them only four months ago that for the sake of a right-wing government any means are necessary, including legitimizing a racist party? The answer is that the religious Zionist parties understand that Netanyahu’s worries at this time do not involve losing the votes of the extreme right wing but rather have to do with Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman and Democratic Israel party head Ehud Barak.  

According to the latest polls, without Liberman Netanyahu won’t have a government. Liberman and Barak have put the growing extremism of religious Zionism at the spearhead of their election campaign. Liberman called the religious military preparatory academies “phalanges,” and Barak, hinting at Jewish Power, said, “This group is racist, messianic, and distorts Judaism and Zionism.” 

It seems that the last thing Peretz wants now is Ben Gvir, Marzel and Gupstein on his list, but soon he might discover that the weeds have grown wild. They still might thrive, since Netanyahu watered them in the garden, and manage to draw enough votes to enter the Knesset — with or without Michael Ben Ari, but with much hatred, provocation and pure racism. 

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