Friday's New York Times featured an article on Binyamin Netanyahu, poised to be the next Prime Minister of Israel. In the article, Netanyahu is quoted as having been told by President Obama that, though he came from the right wing, he moved to the center and became a pragmatist. Obama, according to Netanyahu, said the same about himself with regard to the left.
This story, if true, doesn't bode well for how President Obama will work with a Netanyahu-led government -- particularly one that appears will be far to the right wing.
Recall the Likud primary, as an illustrative example. Ultra-right-wing "peace activist" Moshe Feiglin placed 20th on the Knesset list for the Likud, only to be knocked down the roster 16 places after Netanyahu appealed the Likud primary results to the courts. Netanyahu made this move to appeal to "centrist" voters. (And Feiglin failed in the February 10 general election to get a seat in the Knesset.) But as so often has happened in his political career, Netanyahu was just showing rank hypocrisy.
Netanyahu’s gripe with Feiglin was that Feiglin is an "extremist." He’s a proponent of the "Greater Israel" philosophy, which dictates that Israel should not allow the existence of a Palestinian state but, rather, should annex the West Bank and Gaza. The ideal situation for Feiglin would be an Israel occupying all the land west of the Jordan River and that only had Arab residents that had sworn loyalty oaths to the government and vowed to accept second-class citizenship status in perpetuity.
Here’s the rub: Netanyahu believes pretty much the same things.
The likely Prime Minister’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of Spanish Jews. He is also described by many in the know as the "elder statesman" of Revisionist Zionism, the far-right version of the Jewish nationalist philosophy espoused first by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Benzion Netanyahu, now in his nineties, was once the executive director of the U.S. wing of the New Zionist Organization of Jabotinsky.
This was a period during which the U.K., which held the League of Nations mandate over Palestine, had designated the military wing of the Revisionist movement, the Irgun, as a terrorist organization. And the British had done this with good reason: The Irgun had been targeting both British authorities and Palestinian civilians -- and even fellow Jews -- for several years. Comparatively speaking, the Haganah, the militia that eventually became the IDF, was downright restrained by comparison, at least until the 1948-49 war began. The Irgun’s emblem bore the words Rak kach ("Only thus") below the image of a hand gripping a rifle superimposed over Palestine, as well as all of Jordan. (Notably, the late Meir Kahane chose the name of his Kach party from the Irgun motto.)
The elder Netanyahu has claimed that his active association with the Revisionist movement ended with the death of Jabotinsky in 1940. (He had been one of the man’s top aides.) However, Benzion’s Netanyahu’s leadership over the Revisionist movement in the U.S. is confirmed in a 2005 article by Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff on Jewish reaction to the Holocaust published by the Theodor Herzl Foundation.
Benzion Netanyahu has also claimed that he never had any association with Menachem Begin, but Bibi himself undermined this notion when he said at a news conference shortly after the Likud primary, "The last time that Jabotinsky, Begin, and Netanyahu engaged in public service for the Jewish people was during the World War in an attempt to save European Jewry from annihilation." As Bibi was born in 1949, the obvious conclusion was that his father had worked with Ze’ev "Benny" Begin’s father, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and the grandfather of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was also present at the news conference.
So we know the tree from which the Bibi apple fell. But is it fair to condemn the son for the sins of the father? What evidence do we have that Netanyahu fils shares the views of his father?
According to Elfi Pallis, who currently writes for the Guardian newspaper in the U.K., while serving as deputy foreign minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (another Revisionist), Binyamin Netanyahu remarked that Israel should have taken advantage of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when the world’s media were focusing on that crisis, and expelled large numbers of Arabs from the Palestinian Territories. But, he claimed, the idea didn’t have any support, although he still believed it would have been the right thing to do.
The quote can be found in the article "The Likud Party: A Primer," which appeared in the Winter 1992 edition of the Journal of Palestine Studies on page 57. Pallis cites an Israeli weekend newspaper called Hotam. Veteran anti-Zionist Alexander Cockburn also cited the speech at Bar-Ilan University where Netanyahu made these remarks in the January 8, 1990, edition of The Nation.
Lest there be any doubt, the English-language (and right-wing) Jerusalem Post reported on November 19, 1989, that Netanyahu had made these remarks at Bar-Ilan, stating that Israel had failed to exploit "politically favorable situations" when "the damage would have been relatively small." The Post quotes Netanyahu directly: "I still believe that there are opportunities to expel many people."
Sure, that was nearly 20 years ago, but can we say that a Netanyahu so willing to court the political clout of Benny Begin, a proponent of forced expulsion en masse, has changed all that much? I don’t think that we can. Throw in Avigdor Lieberman, apparently Bibi's junior partner in the now-forming coalition, and the parties Jewish Home and National Union, and you've got some serious ultra-right-wing people, many of whom would annex the West Bank and expel its population in the blink of an eye. These are Netanyahu's natural partners. Make no mistakes.
Jabotinsky famously wrote in his essay "The Iron Wall," published in the 1920s, that no accommodation would ever be made between the Arabs of Palestine and the Jews making aliyah. This idea informed the policies of his followers as they entered politics. Binyamin Netanyahu should be made to face the legacy he bears and admit that the difference between him and Feiglin is marginal at best.