“The story of how the ideology of the late Meir Kahane became mainstreamed in Israeli politics has not yet been sufficiently told, according to Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman. The extremist American rabbi served as an Israeli lawmaker for four years before his Kach party was banned from running in the 1988 election. (He was assassinated by an Egyptian gunman in Manhattan, in 1990.) ‘The liberal Zionist world is convinced that people will be shocked by Kahanists being in government, and it is shocking. But his views are already in the mainstream of Israeli politics, and it’s gone by without anyone noticing,’ she observes. ‘If he came back to life tomorrow and saw the rhetoric, from the right toward the center, he’d be very happy.’
“Friedman is skeptical that a Netanyahu-led government featuring far-right extremists would lead to any significant change in the Biden administration’s approach. ‘It’s going to be a right-wing government no matter what,’ she says. ‘We’ve been saying ‘The most right-wing government in Israel’s history’ after each successive election for 15 years,’ she adds, noting that the U.S. approach is to try to maintain the status quo with Israel. ‘If there’s a line that Israel could cross, it’s difficult to see what that would be. It’s hard to imagine that the United States will suddenly find the stomach to clash with Israel based on the political coloration of a new government,’ Friedman says.
The Biden administration has yet to express any formal concerns regarding a potential Israeli government having an affiliation with State Department-designated foreign terrorist organizations such as Kach and Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), and the American-Jewish establishment has likewise been silent to date (though organizations such as AIPAC did criticize Netanyahu when he backed an electoral pact between Otzma Yehudit and other extremists in early 2019).
“‘People just aren’t shocked by it at the moment,’ Friedman says. ‘That political worldview in the late 1980s, early ’90s, was so beyond the pale for Israelis and for U.S. policy. Today, that narrative is already woven into the mainstream right – the only difference is they’re saying the quiet part loud. But they’d been saying it pretty loud already.’ Such examples, according to Friedman, include Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman being considered a respectable politician despite consistently calling for the transfer of Arabs to the West Bank, as well as Bennett calling for Arab Israelis to take loyalty oaths. ‘This smells and tastes of Meir Kahane already, and there’s been no backlash.’ Friedman says. ‘De facto annexation has been a feature of every Israeli government for the past 15 years, and that hasn’t hurt relations.’
“She cites the Biden administration’s silence following the Israeli announcement of planned construction at Givat Hamatos – an East Jerusalem neighborhood outside the pre-1967 borders – as a significant example of static U.S. policy. ‘Givat Hamatos and E1 [next to East Jerusalem] are the two settlements the U.S. has publicly and powerfully intervened on, based on the argument that they make the two-state solution impossible,’ she says. ‘Israel basically announced [new housing at] Givat Hamatos on Inauguration Day and the Biden folks haven’t said a word about it.’
“Friedman notes the double standard of holding Palestinians to old conditions where they have to support the two-state solution, while a significant number of Israeli lawmakers in successive governments have rejected this. ‘It hasn’t hurt [Israel’s] U.S. relations at all, while the empty rhetoric remains. It’s hard to see a firm line in the sand that can’t be crossed that would lead to consequences,’ she says. ‘And Netanyahu seems to understand that well.’
“Netanyahu’s experiences with previous U.S. administrations is informing Biden’s approach, Friedman says, arguing that he operates as if he will succeed no matter who is in power. ‘He operates like ‘If it’s Trump, I can flatter him and find my fellow travelers. If it’s Obama, I will corner him between a rock and a hard place.’ He very effectively checkmated Obama’s policies, notwithstanding the fact he was the most generous and noncritical U.S. president for Israel in decades; he has been stuck with a false legacy,’ she says. Aware of this dynamic, as well as Netanyahu’s ‘extraordinary all-out on Congress and the U.S. Jewish community’ regarding Iran, the Biden administration is instead saving its political capital for a potential clash over a return to the nuclear deal (officially known as the JCPOA), Friedman believes. ‘On everything else – the International Criminal Court, settlements, violence – the administration response is ‘Both sides should hold back.’ It’s hard not to conclude the key operating rule is: ‘Don’t clash with Israel,’’ she says.”