How Netanyahu brought Israel's biggest racists seats - and legitimacy - in parliament

How Netanyahu brought Israel's biggest racists seats - and legitimacy - in parliament
Comment: Netanyahu's political future may still look unsure, but his explicit support for a fanatic, right-wing alliance has helped pave their way into the Knesset, writes David Sheen.
5 min read
30 Mar, 2021
The far-right coalition Jewish Power won six seats in Israel's recent election [Getty]
For the fourth time in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to convince Israeli voters to give him a 61-seat majority mandate to continue governing the country.

He did achieve success in one regard, however: finally finding seats in the parliament for the Jewish Power party, the current political vehicle of the Kahanists, followers of arch-racist American-Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane. 

Kahanists aim to ethnically cleanse Israel and all the territories it occupies of non-Jews. To be sure, they are a fringe faction, but one that punches well above their weight: they have been responsible for more than 60 racist murders since 1971 - mostly of Palestinians, in Palestine - making Kahanists the group whose military wing has the highest body count of any Jewish political movement in the last half-century.

By 1988, Kahane's political party Kach was banned from Knesset for its unrepentant racism - even by Israeli standards - by both the legislature and the judiciary. Six years later in 1994, when almost half of the documented Kahanist killings occurred in one horrific massacre of 29 Palestinian men and boys at Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli government officially declared Kach and its offshoots terrorist groups. 

There isn't enough lipstick in all of Israel to put a pretty face on the Kahanist creed

As an extra-parliamentary political force, the Kahanists would remain at the vanguard of the Israeli far-right for the next quarter-century. But for the first 15 of those 25 years, whichever way they rebranded themselves to get around the parliamentary prohibitions on Kach, they were always too few in number to win seats in the Israeli parliament. 

But when a right-wing wave put Netanyahu back in the prime minister's office in 2009, it also landed a Kahanist in the Knesset after an absence of two decades: firebrand scholar Dr Michael Ben-Ari. 

Officially, Ben-Ari wasn't supposed to be representing the outlawed group Kach; he was voted into the Knesset on a general far-right slate - call it Kahanist-lite. And officially, Netanyahu didn't include that Kahanist-lite slate in his first coalition government; Michael Ben-Ari ostensibly spent his four-year Knesset career in the opposition. 

But with the podium and prestige he had as a parliamentarian, and with the help of his assistant - the Kahane movement's most recognisable activist, Itamar Ben Gvir - Ben Ari preached unabashed Jewish supremacy, forcing the national conversation further and further to the far-right on issue after issue. 

To complement Israel's long-ongoing race wars against Arabs, and on mixed-race Arab-Jewish families, Ben-Ari identified and amplified the contours of a new Israeli race war, against a recently-arrived non-Jewish population - this time African asylum-seekers who had fled to Israel on foot from war-torn dictatorships, and who had often also been abused on the way by human traffickers. 

Read more: Netanyahu has long run cover for Israel's biggest racists

Soon, Netanyahu's Likud party lawmakers were adopting Ben-Ari's hateful invective against the African refugees, and joining him on the bandstand at race rallies, demanding the deportation of all 60,000, and spurring lethal vigilante violence against the community.

When this incitement led to the firebombing of an African kindergarten and an anti-African race riot in 2012, Israel's political deck was reshuffled. The Kahanist leadership soon found itself once again without a reliable political vehicle to ride into the next Knesset. But their activists on the ground in Tel Aviv, who regularly harassed African refugees and their children, got recruited into the prime minister's inner circle. 

Netanyahu elevated one of these racist campaigners, Sheffi Paz, to sit in on his cabinet meetings. From there, she torpedoed any proposals to regularise the refugees' status, and ensured that the government remained resolute in its efforts to immiserate the Africans, until they give up their asylum claims and grudgingly agree to be deported. Another anti-African agitator from the Kahanist camp, May Golan, became a Likud lawmaker in 2019; Netanyahu is now vowing to make her Minister of Immigration. 

In the decade prior, parties who had competed with, and lost to, the Likud for the secular nationalist vote (the largest sector of the Israeli electorate) had agreed to join governments headed by Netanyahu. But after he was charged with multiple corruption crimes in 2019, these allies started to scamper away; only Israel's religious parties now still agree to support Netanyahu's continued rule.

Only Israel's religious parties now still agree to support Netanyahu's continued rule

And since the religious parties already in the Knesset have proven incapable of providing him with the parliamentary majority necessary to stay in office, Netanyahu has nurtured a coalition between far-right factions to include the Kahanists - now explicitly running under their new brand name, Jewish Power.

In 2019, Israel's High Court disqualified the candidacies of ex-Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari, and other second-generation Kahanist leaders, for their repugnantly racist public statements. But Ben-Ari's deputy Itamar Ben Gvir endured the scrutiny of the country's top judges, and thus inherited the chairmanship of the Jewish Power party.

To avoid the pitfalls that tripped up the first two generations of Kahanists that preceded him, Ben Gvir - a licensed attorney - learned to disguise his public calls for ethnic cleansing in coded language. For example, he substitutes the nondescript nouns "terrorists" or "enemies" when chanting the genocidal slogan that the Kahane movement popularised: "Death to the Arabs". 

The legacy left to us by Israel's longest-serving prime minister: the mainstreaming of the most murderous movement in modern Jewish history

But there isn't enough lipstick in all of Israel to put a pretty face on the Kahanist creed. Their endgame remains the same as in Kahane's day: to turn Israel into a Jewish monarchy, ruled by a king who would institute homophobic and misogynist policies from the Middle Ages, and who would force all non-Jews in Israel - and territories beyond its borders - to swear fealty to Jews, on pain of expulsion or death.

And now Netanyahu's explicit support for this fanatic alliance has convinced a critical mass of former fence-sitters to vote for the Kahanist slate, giving the party six seats in the Knesset, five per cent of the total. The legacy left to us by Israel's longest-serving prime minister: the mainstreaming of the most murderous movement in modern Jewish history.

David Sheen is an independent journalist originally from Toronto, Canada and now based in Israel. 

Follow him on Twitter: @davidsheen

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.