Ben-Gvir’s Victory: A Harsh Blow to Israel’s Standing in America
If Netanyahu welcomes the poisonous, Arab-hating far right into government, led by a Trump-like provocateur, it will be a catastrophe for Israel’s standing in America: In Congress, on campus and among American Jews.
American Jews are in mourning.
While we don’t know for certain what the new Israeli government will look like, based on what we do know, the winners are Itamar Ben-Gvir and the far-right Kahanism that he represents.
Since it was the lunatic fringe of American Jewry that gave birth to this ideology, we know what Kahanism is. And we also know that Israel will pay a heavy price in its international standing for Ben-Gvir’s victory – especially in the United States.
Americans are already viewing Ben-Gvir as a Trump-like figure, who has done to the Israeli right what Donald Trump did to the Republican Party. Both are radical, belligerent nationalists, who travelled in a few short years from the outer reaches of the political system to its very center. Both give legitimacy to racist and extremist views, poisoning political discourse in a heretofore unimaginable way.
Both are cynical showmen, provocateurs and inciters who tolerate violence, that is, when they don’t outwardly encourage it. Both speak the language, sometimes coded and sometimes clear, of authoritarianism and quasi-fascism.
Thanks to Ben-Gvir, Arab-hating Israelis are much freer to express their views in Israel today than they once were, just as thanks to Trump, minority-hating Americans are much freer to express their views in America.
Ben-Gvir, of course, may welcome the comparison with Trump, which he undoubtedly takes as a compliment. But he, like Benjamin Netanyahu, misunderstands America and is misreading its politics.
Make no mistake: This is a vulnerable time for Israel. Ben-Gvir’s emergence as a significant political player in Israel will undermine the country’s public standing in America, strengthen Israel’s enemies and offend its friends.
The danger can perhaps be contained, but only if Ben-Gvir, along with Bezalel Smotrich, his extremist partner in the Religious Zionism party, remain outside of an Israeli government and coalition. After all, if approximately 10 percent of Israeli voters support a far-right extremist party, it is troubling, but no more than that. But if that party enters the government and its leaders serve as ministers who speak for the Jewish state and the Jewish people, it is a catastrophe.
Right-wing Israeli politicians love to pontificate about anti-Israel and pro-BDS activity on campus, seeing it as a left-wing effort. But the American Jewish community has fought against this; only a small number of pro-BDS student resolutions have passed, and not a single major university has voted to boycott or divest from Israel.
Yet the minute a narrow, right-wing government takes office in Israel, with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich sitting as senior ministers, the campus Israel haters will be dancing in the streets. They will organize demonstrations and renew the BDS campaign, and flyers with Ben-Gvir’s picture and past statements will be distributed on every elite campus in America. Those of us who have made the case for decades that Israel is not an apartheid state will find ourselves contending with quotes from two members of Israel’s cabinet that sound quite a bit like support for apartheid.
And those who say that apartheid-supporters sit at the highest levels of Israel’s government will be right, and we will have no compelling response.
Even worse is what may develop in Congress. According to recent polls, approximately one-third of the Americans who identify as Democrats support boycotting Israel. In the current Congress, though, backing for Israel is overwhelming; only a handful of members in the House and Senate have expressed encouragement for boycotting or cutting aid to the Jewish state. Congress Democrats, in other words, have stood up to the critical attitudes of their own constituents to maintain aid to Israel.
But what will happen when racists and extremists sit in the Israeli government? Keep in mind that for a decade, Benjamin Netanyahu has carried out an absurd vendetta against the Democratic Party, the most recent chapter of which is his newly-released autobiography. It is filled with vicious and utterly gratuitous attacks against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the latter of whom is the party’s most popular living leader.
The shift may not be immediate, but Israel cannot count on long-term Democratic support if its government is led by a prime minister hostile to the party and its ministers espouse positions that virtually all Democrats rightly find abhorrent.
If Netanyahu is counting on Donald Trump and a Republican victory in the midterms to solve his Ben-Gvir problem, he is misreading realities here as well. The Democrats will control the White House and American foreign policy for the next two years, no matter what happens in the midterms. And the Republican Party cannot be counted on for anything – even support for Israel.
It is true that the Trump administration delivered the Abraham Accords, and for this Trump deserves credit. There remains a core of pro-Israel support in the party that should be appreciated and acknowledged. But it is also true that the party is shifting beneath Trump’s feet.
Part sociopath and part id-driven clown, Trump knows nothing and believes in nothing. After spending his entire adult life in New York City without connecting to Israel in any way, he embraced Israel as president when it was convenient to do so and will abandon it the minute that the party or the MAGA base challenges him.
That is exactly what is happening now, as we see from the challengers to Trump who are beginning to emerge. While the former president is still essential for energizing the base, it is a base that he no longer controls.
As historian Nicole Hemmer has suggested in her brilliant book “Partisans,” the Republican Party is moving in the direction of populist nationalism, nativism, authoritarianism, and ethnic and class resentment. Despite the increasingly erratic pro-Israel bluster of Trump, the party is returning to its isolationist roots and to the “America First” themes that originated with Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s.
The Republicans today are the party of Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the Proud Boys. It has resurrected Pat Buchanan’s strain of populist nationalism, and it has allowed his antisemitism to gain a strong foothold in its ranks.
Some elements of the party, of course, are fighting back, resisting white supremacy and supporting a robust foreign policy and real commitment to Israel. Such people still exist in the Republican ranks. But these elements, the sane and sensible ones, are just as appalled as the Democrats by the crude racism of Ben-Gvir and company.
They know, just as the Democrats know, that if Israel is to maintain American support in these dangerous and uncertain times, it must do so in the traditional way: as a fully democratic, proudly Jewish state – tied to Democrats and Republicans alike, committed to human rights and to the values that bind the countries and the peoples of America and Israel.
And they know that this can never happen if semi-fascists like Ben-Gvir and his crew sit in Israel’s cabinet and make the decisions that determine Israel’s fate. Netanyahu, are you listening?