Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an old hand at the backroom wrangling that can stitch together a coalition in the harsh world of parliamentary democracy here.
But his latest deal — which could hand a parliament seat to advocates for Jewish supremacy and expulsion of Arabs from Israel — has provoked widespread anger, even from the Israeli rabbis and American Jewish leaders who normally offer him unwavering support.
Under the deal with Netanyahu, three fringe parties joined forces last week to form the United Right-wing Parties in advance of elections April 9. The plan is to obtain the 3.25% of the vote needed to join the parliament, then back the prime minister’s fragile coalition.
In exchange, the new group was promised two senior Cabinet posts and given a spot on the list of candidates fielded by Netanyahu’s Likud Party — a move that essentially guarantees it a seat in the parliament, or Knesset.
One of the fringe parties, Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, is led by disciples of the late American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, an anti-Arab activist and founder of the Jewish Defense League, which was classified as a right-wing terrorist group by the FBI.
Having immigrated to Israel, Kahane was elected to the Knesset in 1984 and served a single term before his Kach party was outlawed as a hate group.
He was assassinated in 1990.
Like Kach, Jewish Power legitimizes violence against Palestinians, advocates expelling Arab citizens from Israel and promotes a ban on intermarriage between Jews and Arabs. It has never been voted into the Knesset.
“The uproar,” the Jerusalem Post reports, “has been deafening.”
In a Facebook post, prominent Jerusalem-based Rabbi Benny Lau denounced Netanyahu in terms rarely heard in Israel.
“The prime minister doesn’t care,” he wrote. “He wants to win the elections, period.”
If people whose beliefs stem from the Bible introduce racial policy into parliament, Lau asked, “what will we have become?”
During his Saturday sermon, Lau preached that a vote for the United Right-wing Parties was equal to a vote for Nazism.
A group of nearly 90 orthodox rabbis followed suit, publishing an open letter warning followers who back the newly formed group that “the stain of your association with evil will be permanent.”
By Monday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and other major Jewish organizations in the U.S. denounced the move.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a longtime supporter of Netanyahu, said the new deal was “very disturbing.”
Speaking to the Associated Press, Hoenlein said, “Politics can’t dictate everything. You have to take into consideration all of the ramifications and all of the concerns.”
Netanyahu presides over a fragile coalition government, and whether he continues as prime minister after the elections will depend on building a new coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. His party currently holds 30 seats.
The prime minister has also been under investigation for corruption for allegedly trading political favors for positive news coverage, and Israeli media have reported that prosecutors could move to indict him as soon as next week.