Netanyahu’s Most Cynical Ploy Yet

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Most Americans have probably never heard of Yifat Ehrlich, or for that matter her former center-right political party in Israel, Bayit Yehudit. If they care about the future of Israel and Zionism, they should now hold her name in reverence.

On Thursday Ehrlich refused a foul bargain. After her party’s leaders made a deal to allow Judeofascists to appear on the ballot with her and other Bayit Yehudit candidates in Israel’s upcoming elections, she quit.

The candidates in question are members of the Otzma Yehudit Party, known in English as Jewish Power. They are the political heirs of the late Meir Kahane. The Jewish Power Party embraces his policy of ethnic cleansing — that is, the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the territory it won in defensive wars with Arab states. One of its leaders holds a party every year at the grave of the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinian civilians in 1994.

Ehrlich’s courage stands in contrast to the unreconstructed cynicism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who orchestrated the deal. The Jerusalem Post reports that Netanyahu promised two cabinet ministries to Bayit Yehudit in exchange for agreeing to the electoral alliance. The prime minister has sought to form a right-wing government, and he needs all the votes he can get.

While Kahanists have been elected to Israel’s Knesset before, Netanyahu’s deal is something very new. Until now, Kahane and his party were the third rail of Israeli politics. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, like Netanyahu a member of the Likud Party, refused to be in the Knesset when Kahane spoke. Eventually, Israel’s supreme court banned Kahane from elected office altogether, upholding a law outlawing incitement and racism in the Knesset.

Now Netanyahu has given Kahane’s party the equivalent of a Kosher certificate, as Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov put it. His decision has scandalized many of Israel’s friends in America. The Anti-Defamation League has denounced it. “Netanyahu has just embraced the darkest face of contemporary Jewry,” said Leon Wieseltier, long one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the U.S. “The prime minister of Israel is in the gutter.” Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who now directs the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program, said Netanyahu’s decision “reflects desperation and ambition and an unprincipled willingness to do almost anything to maintain himself in power.”

In Israel, some leaders on the right have tried to downplay its significance. The leader of Bayit Yehudit, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, said Wednesday that his party and the Kahanists have different world views. This is not a “merger,” he stressed. “They are not part of our household, but I accept them as guests who want to enter our home for a short time.”

This misses the point. Netanyahu and Peretz have legitimized hateful fanatics until recently considered beyond the pale. Even if no Kahanists serve in a future government, the prime minister’s political embrace of them is a stain that cannot be ignored. For this reason alone, Netanyahu and his coalition deserve to lose power when Israelis vote for their next government in eight weeks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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