Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brokered a deal this week with the right-wing extremist party Jewish Power, which has roots in a violent, racist movement that Israel and the U.S. deemed a terrorist organization.
The agreement is Netanyahu’s effort to consolidate support before the country’s election in April. Although Netanyahu has long courted nationalist and religious parties as a means of undermining right-wing challengers and shoring up coalitions, his pact with Jewish Power goes beyond his previous alliances. One prominent Israeli diplomatic correspondent compared Netanyahu’s deal to an American president making a pact with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jewish Power, or Otzma Yehudit, is led by followers of Brooklyn-born Meir Kahane, an openly racist and ultranationalist rabbi who led extremist organizations in the United States and Israel. Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990, was also the founder of the Jewish Defense League ― a violent anti-Arab organization founded in the U.S. that the FBI refers to as a terrorist group.
In the deal, Netanyahu promised key government positions to the religious, anti-gay Jewish Home party if it agreed to join forces with Jewish Power and another right-wing group. The three parties agreed to merge and support Netanyahu’s Likud in a coalition if his party wins enough votes to form a government.
Many of Jewish Power’s senior members have direct links to Kahane and his extremist political organizations, and the connection brought immediate backlash from Israeli politicians, media and American Jewish groups. Kahane repeatedly called for ethnic cleansing and espoused anti-Arab vitriol, and he was arrested in 1989 in Jerusalem after a mob he was part of chanted “Kill the Arabs” and attempted to lynch two Arab passers-by.
Jewish Power leaders have held nationalist marches through Arab neighborhoods, protested Jewish intermarriage and organized annual celebrations of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli extremist who fatally shot 29 Palestinians at a mosque in 1994. Goldstein was a supporter of Kahane’s Kach party, which Israel banned after the killings.
Critics of Netanyahu’s agreement with the far-right, including his top political opponent, Benny Gantz, accused the prime minister of losing his dignity and selling out national values in forming an alliance with Jewish Power. After the deal, Gantz and longtime Netanyahu rival Yair Lapid announced that they would unite their parties to form a centrist alliance against the prime minister’s right-wing bloc ― a last-minute development that significantly changes the election campaign.
The deal between Gantz and Lapid increases pressure on Netanyahu, who is scrambling to hold together the political alliances and voting blocs he needs to stay in power. There is also the looming possibility of indictments against him just weeks before the election, as he faces multiple corruption allegations. Israeli police recommended indictments in three cases against him last year, and the attorney general announced this month that his team would make a decision on charging Netanyahu as soon as possible.