Scoop: Menendez warns Netanyahu against working with Jewish supremacists
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) during a trip to Israel last month warned Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu that if he forms a government after the Nov. 1 elections that includes right-wing extremists, it could harm U.S.-Israel bilateral relations, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
Why it matters: Netanyahu recently united several radical right-wing Jewish supremacist parties as part of his effort to consolidate his right-wing bloc and win the November election.
- The former Israeli prime minister needs to win a 61-seat majority in the Knesset to form a coalition that could pass laws and take steps to stop his corruption trial.
- Including Jewish supremacists in any potential future government could give them a lot of leverage over Netanyahu to push through racist policies.
Behind the scenes: During the Sept. 5 meeting with Netanyahu, Menendez raised his concerns about the opposition leader's political partnership and cooperation with extreme right-wing parties, according to two U.S. sources familiar with what was discussed in the meeting.
- The sources said Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee one of the most outspoken Democratic supporters of Israel in the Senate, specifically mentioned Jewish Power party leader Itamar Ben Gvir, a Jewish supremacist who will likely be a minister if Netanyahu wins the elections.
- Menendez told Netanyahu he has “serious concerns” over a possible partnership with “extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben Gvir” in a potential future government, the sources said.
- “People who were in the room saw how pissed off Bibi got" with Menendez's comments, one of the sources said.
Menendez did not back down from the issue even after Netanyahu expressed his annoyance over his comments, the source said.
- “The senator told Netanyahu he needed to realize the composition of such a coalition could seriously erode bipartisan support in Washington, which has been a pillar of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Israel," the source added.
- Menendez was in Israel as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The big picture: Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2007 of supporting a terror organization and inciting racism. He is perhaps best known for ripping the Cadillac emblem off of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car in 1995 and declaring, “We reached Rabin’s car, we will get to Rabin too." Rabin was assassinated later that year.
- Ben Gvir has said he wants to establish a new ministry for encouraging the immigration of “enemies” and people who are “disloyal” to the state. He also says he will try to pass laws for implementing the death sentence against those he calls "terrorists."
- Netanyahu managed to unite Ben Gvir and his party with another extreme right-wing party called "Religious Zionism.” The party's leader, Bezalel Smotrich, has a history of making racist remarks about Arab citizens of Israel. Smotrich has said the murder of a Palestinian family by Jewish settlers was not terrorism, and organized an anti-gay parade in Jerusalem.
- Netanyahu also united these two parties with a third party called Noam, a radical religious party that focuses primarily on opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
State of play: The right-leaning Israel Hayom newspaper reported on Wednesday that other U.S. officials are concerned about the possibility of Ben Gvir becoming a minister if Netanyahu wins the elections and forms a government.
- According to the report, major Jewish organizations in the U.S. are equally concerned about this scenario and its influence on the ability of the pro-Israel community to defend Israel in Washington.
- A senior U.S. official confirmed the report to Axios and said the Biden administration is very concerned about what impact such a political development could have on U.S.-Israeli relations.
What they're saying: State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Axios the Biden administration is not weighing in on domestic politics in Israel.
- Netanyahu’s office declined to comment.