Atlanta Jews reacted strongly to the announcement that Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu had engineered the merger of two small political parties, one of which includes followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.
That Netanyahu needed the right-wing Jewish Home party to combine with the ultra-nationalist Jewish Power party reflects the challenge to his ruling Likud coalition by the newly created Blue and White party, whose leaders include three former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
Israelis will vote April 9 on a new 120-seat Knesset. To maintain a majority coalition, Netanyahu will need to combine the seats won by Likud with those of other parties. Israelis vote for political parties rather than individuals. To secure seats in the Knesset, an individual party must win at least 3.25 percent of the vote, a feat that neither Jewish Home nor Jewish Power might have achieved on its own.
Bringing the Jewish Power party into the electoral equation prompted a range of negative reactions from major American Jewish organizations. They ranged from J Street to AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and included the Union for Reform Judaism, Torat Chayim (an association of progressive Orthodox rabbis), the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and notably, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
During a visit to Israel, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference, said that Netanyahu’s dalliance with the Jewish Power party created a “very disturbing” image that Israel’s enemies could exploit.
“For those who follow this, there’s a lot of concern,” Hoenlein said, according to the Associated Press. “What we have to deal with is how it is perceived and understood in the United States,” Hoenlein said. “And we have to be very careful because it feeds certain tendencies that are very concerning to us.”
Netanyahu’s action was endorsed as necessary to preserve a right-wing government by the National Council of Young Israel, an association of 175 Orthodox synagogues. “We understand what Prime Minister Netanyahu did, and he did it to have ministers of the national religious and national union parties in his coalition,” said a statement given to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in the United States in 1968. After moving to Israel in 1971, he created the Kach party and served in the Knesset, until Kach was banned for violating an Israeli law against incitement to violence.
Kach also was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department after the Feb. 25, 1994, massacre of 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, by Baruch Goldstein, an American-born doctor and Kach member. Kahane was assassinated in 1990 in New York.
Jewish Power, known as Otzma Yehudit in Hebrew, is led by Kahane disciples. The party favors requiring Palestinian and Israeli Arabs to declare loyalty to Israel and accept a lesser status in a Jewish nation that would include the West Bank territories (also known as Judea and Samaria), or face expulsion.
Rabbi Mario Karpuj of Congregation Or Hadash, said that Netanyahu “can’t pretend” that he was bringing Jewish Power into his fold “for the well-being of the country. He’s doing it for his own career.”
Mitchell Kaye, who served East Cobb as a Republican for five terms in theGeorgia House of Representatives, cautioned against discounting Netanyahu’s political prowess. “Netanyahu is a whole lot smarter and savvy than me and most politicians and pundits. The graveyard is littered with those who second-guess his moves. It will take ‘magic’ to unseat a prime minister who has kept Israel safe while forging unprecedented alliances and opened doors with many Arab and other nations and has built a large coalition to counter Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions,” Kaye said.
Dov Wilker, who made aliyah and is now regional director of AJC Atlanta, doubts that Israelis will vote for a political party list that might send members of the Jewish Power party to the Knesset. “The Israeli electorate will vote along democratic and Jewish values,” he said.
Shai Robkin, who made aliyah and lived in Israel for many years before returning to Atlanta, is a self-described “Bibi hater for a long time.”
Robkin said that he would not be surprised to see Netanyahu “pull some rabbit out of his hat,” and continue his tenure, which is on the verge of surpassing that of David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. “We’ve been disappointed so many times in other elections,” Robkin said.
Whether or not Netanyahu succeeds in forming another government after the election, “Diaspora Jews who truly support Israel should not care which coalition is in power and who the prime minister is. AIPAC and AJC’s criticism of the center-right coalition is inappropriate and self-serving,” Kaye said.