Benjamin Netanyahu has already shown that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to stay in power as Israel’s prime minister. The three corruption investigations against him are all linked to his surreptitious efforts to harness mainstream media coverage for his survival. On Israel’s election day in 2015, he urged his supporters to vote with a video in which, speaking from a faux war room, he warned that Arabs were “advancing on the polling places in droves,” as “leftist organizations bring them in buses.” That ugly appeal may well have been the key to his victory.
With time, shock at Netanyahu’s lack of scruples has faded to exhaustion. And yet, his latest move still astounds. With another election looming, Netanyahu has gone to extraordinary lengths to engineer an alliance between three far-right parties. The blatant racism of one of those parties — Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power — has made it the pariah of Israeli politics for decades. In earlier incarnations under other names, the movement it represents was banned as a terrorist group in Israel and listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department. Netanyahu has done his best to put the group in parliament.
Otzma Yehudit consists of disciples of the late Meir Kahane, who moved from the United States to Israel in the early 1970s and positioned himself in an ideological Kuiper belt, beyond the known fringes of the Israeli right. His Kach movement called for outlawing sex between Jews and Arabs. In the longer term, its goal was expelling Palestinians from any land under Israeli rule. His followers splattered Jerusalem walls with posters demanding that Israel “erase the mosques from the Temple Mount.” In 1980, he was jailed for several months by administrative order to block his alleged plot to attack the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. Kahane was an ordained rabbi; few individuals have desecrated that title as he did.
In the 1980s, it took 1 percent of the national vote for a party to make it into parliament. Kahane passed that threshold in 1984. Every other party in the Knesset boycotted him — including the Likud, then led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. When Kahane spoke, the Knesset hall emptied. Because of him, parliament changed its rules so that the speaker could block racist bills. Then it passed a law banning racist parties from elections.
Kahane was murdered in 1990 in New York by an Islamist extremist. But Kach lived on, brutally. In 1994, one of Kahane’s closest followers murdered 29 Palestinians during prayers at a contested holy site in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Hebron massacre led to the Israeli government outlawing Kach and the breakaway Kahane Chai movements.
The Kahanists didn’t disappear, though. By shifting names — sometimes very slightly blurring the message — the movement lives on. Otzma Yehudit is the latest iteration. It’s running again, expecting to slip past the ban, but had no chance of meeting the current, higher threshold for entering parliament, 3.25 percent of the vote.
Then Netanyahu stepped in. Two other parties on the religious right seemed likely to fall short. Netanyahu also decided to rescue them.
These parties are splintered, small and in trouble. The oldest, Jewish Home, militantly nationalist and pro-settlement, was Netanyahu’s ally in the outgoing government. But its leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, left to create a new party that has shed the religious label. What’s left of Jewish Home has become more extreme. At Netanyahu’s urging, it renewed a shaky alliance with the National Union, which is further right yet. National Union’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, is known for equating homosexuality to bestiality and for defending discrimination against Arabs.
Then Netanyahu pushed the union with the Kahanists. He canceled a long-scheduled summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay home and broker the deal. He gave away political goodies, including two ministerial posts in his next government, one for Jewish Home, one for Smotrich.
Netanyahu's explicit rationale is that if Otzma Yehudit or the other parties ran separately and fell short of the electoral threshold, their votes would go to waste, and the left could come to power. This is obfuscation. The electoral threat to Netanyahu comes from Blue and White, a center-right grouping led mostly by ex-generals. The wind in its sails is not leftist shouts, but voters' sighs of distaste with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s panic is over his own fate, especially with the corruption investigations likely to lead to indictments. He wants people in parliament who will stick with him personally, who don’t care about indictments, who agree with his attacks on the media and the legal system.
No Faustian bargain is beyond him. If the price of survival is turning Kahane’s hate-spouting racist heirs from pariahs to partners, Netanyahu is willing. Unlike his alleged bribe-taking, this pact is not illegal. Yet historically and morally, it is an even greater offense.