Pinned to the right
Goldstone’s latest book is “Not White Enough: The Long, Shameful Road to Japanese American Internment.” Learn more at www.lawrencegoldstone.com.
One would not have expected Benjamin Netanyahu and Kevin McCarthy to have very much in common. One is the second son of a famed and brilliant scholar, whose elder brother, by all accounts his father’s favorite, was killed in one of most audacious and celebrated rescue missions in his nation’s history, while the other is the son of an assistant fire chief in a middle-class town in central California, whose first business venture was selling sandwiches from the back of his uncle’s yogurt shop. Netanyahu graduated from MIT, where he received degrees in architecture and management and was pursuing a PhD in political science, but left school to go on to a distinguished stint of his own in Israeli special forces, while McCarthy never served in the military and has a marketing degree from a local college.
Their careers took different paths as well. Netanyahu rode his family name and impeccable Zionist credentials to accelerate his way up the political ladder of the Israeli right wing, while McCarthy, whose parents were Democrats, was forced to work his way up slowly and methodically through the California Republican Party. In the end, however, both have achieved their dream—Netanyahu is prime minister of Israel, a job in which he has served longer than any of his predecessors, and McCarthy is Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and third in line for the presidency.
Now, however, at the pinnacle of their careers, each finds himself stymied by his own ambition, forced into adopting a more radical agenda than he might have favored by party firebrands even more extreme than he. As a result, each is threatened with what he dreads the most—losing his job.
The reason for both men is the number four, because that is the size of their party’s majority in the house of the legislature that allows them to hold their positions.
Israel has a one house legislature, the Knesset, whose 120 seats are distributed by multi-party voting. Netanyahu’s Likud Party holds only 32 of those seats and rules in a coalition with two ultra-orthodox religious parties, and three that are extremely right wing. One of the latter is Otzma Yehudit, a new addition that won six seats, without whose support Netanyahu could not form a government. To gain it, he was forced to appoint party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir to the newly created post of Minister of National Security.
That Ben-Gvir is extreme and virulently anti-Palestinian is an understatement. He is on record as wanting to expel Arabs from Israel and once, in his living room, hung a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians while they prayed, wounding more than one hundred others before he was beaten to death by survivors. That his ministry is in charge of border security and the West Bank would be the fodder for satire if it weren’t true.
While Netanyahu’s corruption indictment is well-known, Ben-Gvir has had numerous run-ins with the Israeli courts himself and so it was not a total surprise when Netanyahu announced a move to weaken the judiciary and place it more under the control of the ruling coalition, which of course meant him. The changes would strengthen not only his ability to rule by fiat—and scuttle his corruption trial—but also aid both those who would forcibly evict Palestinians from their land and homes and the ultra-orthodox who enjoy a broad range of benefits under right wing rule.
Still, despite that he undoubtedly favored these changes and would be a significant beneficiary, Netanyahu is far too wily a politician and far too much of a survivor not to have understood the risks in attempting to ram through a measure that many would—and did—see as a move toward authoritarianism. He had, however, little choice.
Kevin McCarthy has a similar problem. To attain the speakership, he needed an historic fifteen votes to gain the approval of a party that had already earned its majority in the House. The only way he could achieve his goal was, like Netanyahu, to make a series of commitments to the most extreme, most anti-democratic, most divisive, and most destructive members of his party. Although there are a number of choices about which of his House colleagues most epitomizes that description, as there was with Ben-Gvir, Jim Jordan checks all the boxes.
Jordan was one of a small group of Gvir-like Republicans who demanded that the Republican majority focus almost entirely on attacks against Democrats rather than make any attempt to find common ground. To further that aim, Jordan got himself named chairman of the judiciary committee, as well either persuading or forcing McCarthy to create the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, of which Jordan is again chairman. That latter committee shows every sign of abandoning all pretense of actual governance and functioning as a propaganda vehicle for the far right.
In both Israel and the United States, mainstream conservatives have sat by and allowed the extremists to set the agenda. In Israel, that unwillingness to exert some control over the radicals has blown up in the ruling coalition’s face. As many as one million Israelis, nearly ten percent of the nation’s population, took to the streets to protest. Embassies were shut, El Al was grounded, reservists refused to report for duty, and the labor unions called a general strike. Netanyahu, to the chagrin and the fury of the Ben-Gvirs, was forced to “postpone” the judicial reorganization, although it is difficult to see how he can try again without eliciting a similar response.
To date, there has not been a similar reaction in the United States to the far right’s gleeful control of the House, although the test will not come until the congressional elections in 2024. Only then will voters have the opportunity to decide whether McCarthy’s kowtowing to the Jim Jordans—and his speakership—will continue.
Israel seems to have defined Netanyahu’s limit. It remains to be seen whether the United States will define McCarthy’s.
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