After a decade of coalition governments in Israel led by Benjamin Netanyahu، the language needed to describe them has necessarily grown more extreme.
At first، they were right-wing. Then ultra-nationalist. Recently، analysts have started to talk of Netanyahu leading a far-right coalition. Now it seems we may have to go further still.
Should he win Israel’s election in April، Netanyahu’s next government will be one that openly embraces the terrorist right.
Last week، the Central Elections Committee، a body overseeing the election process and dominated by the main political factions، gave the green light for Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) to run for the Israeli parliament.
That has shocked many observers، because the party is justifiably described as a Jewish version of the Ku Klux Klan.
But Otzma Yehudit won’t only be expecting to win seats in the Knesset. Thanks to Netanyahu، it now has a good chance of becoming a partner in the next government.
The party، founded six years ago، is a political refuge for a group of disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. He and his followers are usually termed anti-Arab racists، but nowadays that applies to a significant swath of political opinion in Israel. They are better described as violent Jewish supremacists.
They back a Greater Israel that includes the occupied territories، all of which they want free of Palestinians. The leaders openly defend and associate with extremists within the settler movement who use terror and violence as a way to secure that very goal.
Last year، Otzma Yehudit’s leader، Michael Ben-Ari، called for violence against Israel’s 1.7-million-strong Palestinian minority، who have second-class citizenship، calling them “a fifth column” that was “waging war against us."
He warned them: “If you speak against a Jew، you’re not going to be alive … You’re not going to be deported or have your citizenship revoked. You’re not going to be alive! You’ll be put in front of a firing squad، taken down – this is what Arabs understand."
Ben-Ari has done so little to conceal his support for violence that the US issued a travel ban against him in 2012.
In response to the election committee’s decision، Issawi Frej، an Israeli-Palestinian member of the Knesset، said: "Now our prime minister is laying out the red carpet before the man [Ben-Ari] who said a simple phrase: 'Kahane was right.'
Pact with the devil
Netanyahu’s pact with Otzma Yehudit last month was designed to get him out of an electoral hole.
Unsure of how his voters will respond to the indictments he now faces for bribery and fraud، and up against a group of military generals in a popular new party، Netanyahu needs to win over as many right-wing votes as possible – wherever they come from.
Although there are technical reasons why Netanyahu needs Otzma Yehudit، he clearly believes that the political climate he has helped to foster over the past decade has made it acceptable to include these Jewish supremacists in his prospective government.
That was underscored this week when Netanyahu reiterated on social media that Israel was "not a state of all its citizens" – that it did not belong to the fifth of its citizens who are Palestinian but exclusively to the Jewish people around the world.
Netanyahu’s reliance on Otzma Yehudit follows a recent split in another extreme party in his coalition، Jewish Home، that is close to the fanatical religious wing of the settlers. Jewish Home’s political "stars"، Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked، both government ministers، recently left to create yet another far-right party called the New Right.
Need for extra votes
What was left of the Jewish Home party risked falling just short of the electoral threshold، which needs to be surpassed before a party wins seats in the Knesset. That would result in all its votes being lost، and thereby provide a boost to Netanyahu’s chief opponent، Blue and White، a party led by Benny Gantz and other generals.
Gantz may then be in a position to create an alternative governing coalition made up of the right and centre، and supported informally by a bloc of Israeli-Palestinian parties.
So Netanyahu threw caution to the wind and arm-twisted Jewish Home into making an electoral pact with Otzma Yehudit. Together، they hope to hoover up enough votes to gain a clutch of seats and thereby prop up another government led by Netanyahu’s Likud party.
In fact، Otzma Yehudit is the successor to Kahane’s original party، Kach، which briefly entered the Israeli parliament in the 1980s.
Then، the electoral threshold was much lower، and Kahane was able to win a single seat for himself. But his explicit anti-Arab racism and calls for violence were so discomfiting to the other parties that they shunned him in the Knesset.
Given the added exposure، however، Kahane’s popularity grew. With the prospect of Kach winning several seats in the next election، the parliament amended the election laws to prevent the party from standing. Kahane was assassinated in the US shortly afterwards، in 1990.
When one of his followers، Baruch Goldstein، shot more than 150 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994، killing 29، Kach was outlawed as a terrorist organization.
Manipulating the legal system
But Kach never went away. It didn’t even go properly underground. It flourished in many of the settlements deep in the occupied Palestinian territories، and its former leaders became household names.
The settler youths it cultivated torched olive groves، then mosques، and more recently Palestinian families. The Israeli police and intelligence services made little effort to find the culprits.
But while its violence continued، its leaders grew more sophisticated in the ways they learned to manipulate Israel’s political and legal systems.
Ben-Ari’s deputy، Itamar Ben-Gvir، became a lawyer، finding that it was easy to exploit the reticence of the criminal justice system to prosecute Jews who harm Palestinians.
Related “charities” have promoted Kach’s brand of Jewish supremacism and terrorism، including Lehava، which uses intimidation and violence to stop Jews and Palestinians from dating or even mixing.