After a long absence, Australian Rabbi Joseph Gutnick, businessman, philanthropist and emissary ("Shaliach") of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is back in Israel with the continuing mission of doing what he can for the sake of the Land of Israel. Gutnick was defined by the Rebbe as the Shaliach for the integrity of the Land of Israel.
In 1996, his funds supported the political campaign that brought Benjamin Netanyahu back into the prime minister’s office over Shimon Peres. The campaign was called “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.”
In this interview, Rabbi Gutnick discusses his political involvement with that campaign and if he still wants Netanyahu back in the driver’s seat today.
Gutnick explains that in the aftermath of a political scandal in 1990, nicknamed “The Stinking Trick,” when Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) and Shimon Peres (Labor) were vying with each other to form a government, the Rebbe (via two Chabad members of Knesset) prevented a deal that would have made Peres prime minister. “He was in favor of a narrow strong right-wing government,” he says “and he sent me to do whatever I could to ensure that would happen.”
“Plenty of people criticized me for coming from Australia and interfering in Israeli politics, especially the late Shimon Peres, who was quite annoyed with me and we had a lot of arguments about it. But that was my mission, appointed by the Rebbe. As you know, as a Chabad hasid, you do not argue with the Rebbe. You just follow his command. And why he picked me, I was young at the time, 33 years old, I don’t know. He told me I had to follow his instructions. I was appointed by the Rebbe to speak in his name. I don’t create policies for Chabad, I acted under his direction and I lobbied.”
Gutnick describes having been very close with Prime Minister Shamir and with Arik Sharon, “and I went back and forth, doing my best to ensure that there would be a strong government. And there was in the end.”
“The campaign ‘Netanyahu is good for the Jews’ was very much in line with the Rebbe’s views, he continues. “And my mission continued after the Rebbe passed away. This was the main thing he wanted from me and, at that time, it was necessary. If Shimon Peres would have been elected as prime minister, today we would probably have a Palestinian state.”
Gutnick explains that the issue concerns, not individual politicians per se, but, rather, it is a matter of which government is in power. In his view, the government needs to be able to ensure that no land is compromised, no government policies are compromised, and that a Palestinian state will not arise.
Asked if it is much more challenging to define right and left today, Rabbi Gutnick agrees that it is, qualifying that by pointing out that “there are still those lines of division between those who are prepared to create a Palestinian state, to compromise and to give away land, to those who are strongly against it and not so strongly against it. I look at it from that point of view – which is better for the integrity of Israel?”
Reflecting on what the Rebbe would have thought about the most recent coalition, Gutnick says that the Rebbe did not agree with having a unity government. “He would not have been happy with forming a government with representatives from the Arab community who are against the State of Israel.”
Furthermore, Gutnick says, “Gantz is a very nice man but he does not fit into the framework I am talking about now. He’s done a good job as defense minister, but he doesn’t have the views of the right. If you bring in other parties and have to compromise you can’t have a strong government.”
Even though Ayelet Shaked disappointed her supporters, Gutnick still counts among those who believe in her. “Her heart is in the right place and I still believe that she might make a difference in this election, although a lot of people disagree with me. I think she will be loyal to the right this time.”
“I’ve met with Itamar Ben Gvir, he goes on, “and I don’t find him a radical. Born in Australia, I am open-minded and I don’t see him as a racist. He has very strong views that are good for the State of Israel. I don’t agree with his actions on Har Habayit [the Temple Mount] but he has other views that make sense and if you want security in the State of Israel he should be listened to.”
The “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” campaign worked in 1996, but there are those on the right who say that, over the 12 years of his leadership, Israel saw Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria uprooted, insufficient action regarding Bedouin takeover of land in the Negev, and not enough remediation of the legal system. Gutnick is asked what he thinks of that now.
“I think he’s done a good job,” he begins. “Of course, he made mistakes, can’t satisfy everyone, but there’s a lot of good that he achieved. He made Israel into a strong economic country. He was able to walk between the raindrops in dealing with President Obama, and he was able to work with the Arabs in the Abraham Accords without creating a Palestinian state. He’s a diplomatic genius and I think we haven’t got anyone better than him at the moment.”
“He’s very resilient, very determined, and he thinks he’s the right person to bring Israel out of the threats that exist at the present moment, especially regarding Iran, I suppose he’s the most experienced and I believe he’s the best man for the job.”
“Let’s hope that Netanyahu will be the next PM and that Ayelet Shaked will also get elected,” Gutnick exclaims.