JERUSALEM — Criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government has been heard from American Jews for a while now, but a simple 20-word tweet from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest American Israel lobby, has sent shock waves through the political establishment here.
The tweet, which came late Friday, was a show of support for an earlier statement by another powerful group, the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
The AJC expressed concern about an agreement reached last week — encouraged by Netanyahu to strengthen his right-wing base for the April 9 general election — uniting three small parties, including a faction made up of followers of Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist American Israeli rabbi banned from Israeli politics for his racist opinions. He was assassinated in 1990.
Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, is viewed by many as an offshoot of Kahane’s Kach party, which the State Department designated a terrorist organization. Members of Otzma Yehudit, including Kahane’s former parliamentary aide and his former students, believe that most Arabs support terrorism. The party’s political platform includes plans for the mass transfer of the Arab population out of Israel.
“The views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel,” AJC wrote in its statement. “The party might conceivably gain enough votes to enter the next Knesset, and potentially even become part of the governing coalition.”
AIPAC’s tweet simply said it agreed with the AJC and added that it “has a long-standing policy not to meet with members of the racist and reprehensible party.”
The statements stopped short of criticizing Netanyahu directly for his involvement in facilitating the match between Otzma Yehudit and the two other ultraright parties, Jewish Home and National Union. The partnership is a technical move, allowing the formation of a right-wing bloc that will ultimately enable the longtime Israeli leader to form a coalition if he is reelected.
Yet the message from American Jewish leaders was a clear signal of disapproval and a very unusual step for organized U.S. Jewry, which has a long-standing policy not to publicly criticize Israel or its policies.
For AIPAC, which is often considered Netanyahu’s support base in the United States, the decision to criticize such a move is even more unusual. The pro-Israel lobby endeavors to remain apolitical, and the decision to air its view on this point was probably taken with much deliberation.
On Saturday night, the organization confirmed to its supporters that Netanyahu would speak at its annual policy conference on March 24, two weeks before the election.
“When AIPAC speaks out this way, this is cause for alarm. Members of Otzma Yehudit belong to the margins of Israeli politics, not just on the Palestinian issue,” said Netanyahu’s former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, another right-wing, but nonreligious, faction.
Former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival for prime minister, tweeted that AIPAC’s statement “proves that Benjamin Netanyahu once again crossed ethical lines just to hold onto his seat, badly hurting Israel’s image, Jewish morality and our important relations with the American Jewish community.”
Netanyahu’s response to the comments seemed to underscore the rising tensions with U.S. Jewry.
In a Facebook post Saturday night, Netanyahu wrote that criticism of his creation of a right-wing bloc was hypocritical. He compared his efforts to create a blocking majority in parliament to an alliance between the left-wing and Arab parties 20 years ago.
The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom was more direct on Sunday, attacking the lobby with the headline: “AIPAC displays irresponsibility by letting itself get dragged into the political fray.”
Writing in another Israeli daily, Maariv, Israeli author Moshe Shamir, said Netanyahu might have managed to destroy “the last vestiges of the greater Jewish community’s esteem for official Israel.”
Shamir noted that Kahane, who was raised in Brooklyn, was a thorny issue for American Jews.
“His destructive activities are a dark chapter in the history of the Jewish community, and its leaders have done everything they can to forget him and to wipe out his memory,” Shamir wrote. “They do not comprehend how it is actually an Israeli prime minister who has granted approval and legitimacy to the ideological heirs of the man who disgraced the name of the Jewish diaspora in the United States.”
Debate over the inclusion of Otzma Yehudit on the Israeli political spectrum continued in Israel, too. On Sunday, the Jerusalem Post reported that Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent religious Zionist leader, has vowed to “go to war” to prevent Kahane’s followers from entering the Knesset.
He urged his congregants to research the Nazi Nuremberg laws and compare them with the bills advanced by Kahane when he was a Knesset member in the 1980s, the Jerusalem Post reported.
The newspaper also said that Otzma Yehudit candidates Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir have now threatened to sue Lau over his statement.
“Your words were clear slander and gravely insulting,” Ben-Gvir said. “You crossed a red line by comparing Jews to Nazis — Jews who are loyal to the State of Israel, the Land of Israel and the people of Israel.”