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Posted by on Apr 19, 2023 in By Eric, Haaretz | 3 comments

After Years of Netanyahu, US-Israel Ties Are on Life Support

As Netanyahu’s new government has become increasingly unhinged, the task of American Jewish supporters of Israel has become untenable.

Pro-Israel advocacy in the United States is on the verge of collapse. The system that American Jews have laboriously constructed over the last 75 years, and that has been exceedingly effective in promoting support for Israel in America, is on life support.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this development. American Jews should certainly have done more to avoid it, but the lion’s share of the fault rests squarely on the shoulders of Benjamin Netanyahu. The events of recent months have driven home the point that even the most skilled American advocates cannot win support for Israeli policies that are deeply politically and morally flawed.

As Netanyahu’s new government has become increasingly unhinged, the task of American Jewish supporters of Israel has become untenable. Nothing they do or say will convince Americans, or even otherwise supportive American Jews, to rally behind Israel’s coalition.

Netanyahu may perhaps find himself chastened by the massive protests and ultimately abandon his judicial coup, offering hope to a discouraged American Jewish community. But if this does not occur, the implications for Israel’s future are ominous.

Since Israel’s founding, American Jews have developed a pro-Israel advocacy strategy based on four principles: emphasizing the shared values of the United States and Israel; making the case that the national interests of the two countries substantially overlap, even if they are not identical; developing and encouraging bipartisan support for Israel, among both Democrats and Republicans; and maintaining the broadest possible support from American Jews for Israel.

But since the beginning of his second term in 2009, Netanyahu has worked to undermine every single one of these principles.

As President Joe Biden has suggested, the most jarring blow to the ties that bind Israel and America is Netanyahu’s disregard for the values that the two countries are supposed to share. The latest Netanyahu government has appointed racists and messianists to senior government positions, attempted to neuter Israel’s independent judiciary, proposed governance models for Israel that are semi-democratic at best and dealt with the Palestinian issue in a way that ranges from erratic to morally outrageous.

Netanyahu’s display of authoritarian sympathies constitutes far more than a glitch in American-Israeli relations. It has caused an earthquake, leaving a broad swath of previously sympathetic Americans rattled and confused.

Bibi has done no better when it comes to showing that Israel and its American ally share vital interests. On Netanyahu’s watch, Saudi Arabia has reestablished relations with Iran and drawn closer to American adversaries China and Russia, while weakening the ties forged through the Abraham Accords in the process. American policymakers are unsettled by these developments, to say the least.

Netanyahu is not solely responsible for these diplomatic developments, but he had promised to do his part to keep the Saudis in the western camp by calming tensions with the Palestinians. What he actually did was exactly the opposite. His government passed legislation to allow settlers to return to previously evicted settlements, stood by during the shocking pogrom at Hawara and bungled the handling of disturbances at the Temple Mount, even if this step was corrected. The rabid anti-Arab rantings of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and members of their parties in the Knesset add fuel to this fire; they seem to delight in infuriating Israel’s partners in the Gulf and cannot stop embarrassing themselves.

Americans Jews like to point to Israel as a reliable, democratic, pro-American ally that is supportive of America’s strategic needs. The previous Israeli government more or less fits that model, but the current one does not. What the American administration now sees is what Israeli demonstrators have been demonstrating against over the last three months: The Bibi freak show, mixing general ineptness, a coup against liberty, open racism and barely camouflaged hostility to America.

As for the principle of cultivating bipartisan support for Israel, Bibi has actively favored Republicans over Democrats since 2009, challenging more than 60 years of American Jewish efforts to maintain a stronghold in both major parties.

Even the relationship of American Jews with Israel is cause for concern, although statistics on it are hard to come by. Netanyahu has not cared about world Jewry for a long time, and since abandoning the agreement to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, has mostly written them off.

Jewish devotion to Israel runs deep, and Diaspora support has generally remained vital and strong. But those of us who spend time speaking about Israel with communities across the country know that there is something different about the current crisis. Even the most committed elements of the American Jewish community have been shaken by the events that followed the 2022 Israeli election.

We have found Jews in the organized community to be embarrassed, incredulous, and distraught by what Israel’s current government is doing and saying. “This can’t be,” we hear from our audiences. “This is not what Israel is.”

Most of the attention has focused on the proposed judicial coup, but my take is that judicial issues are not the worst of it. True, American Jews are worried about Netanyahu’s attacks on judicial independence. But while the specifics of the judicial plan are not easy to comprehend, there is another factor that American Jews understand perfectly well: The senior figures in Israel’s government, apart from the prime minister and the defense minister, are Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, both rabble-rousing religious racists. They dispense not truth but deadly poison, words of blasphemy rather than words of Torah. They should not be sitting in any government, and surely not a Jewish one.

And yet there they are, around Israel’s cabinet table, explaining away Jewish pogroms and rejoicing in violence against Arabs while overseeing police and soldiers of the Jewish state. Their every deed, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, is “a cancer of the soul.”

Jewish conservatives offer arguments on behalf of the judicial plan, but fail to see that their lines of reasoning are mostly beside the point. So too are the statements of most major American Jewish organizations, which answer the vile bigotry of Smotrich and his party cohorts with too much restraint and too little sustained outrage.

But American Jews are not fooled, even if Israel’s judicial system does need to be reformed. It was Smotrich who called for the extermination of Hawara, and Jewish Americans will not excuse or forgive moral monsters. They are smart enough to know that any government in which Smotrich and Ben-Gvir serve cannot be trusted to put forward a serious judicial plan, and any plan for which they personally advocate must be immediately dismissed.

American Jews also know that if Netanyahu waits out the protestors and pushes through his judicial coup with the cover of cosmetic changes, the uproar in America will be beyond their control. There will be outright rebellion in Democratic ranks, including from some of Israel’s most loyal friends, and serious talk will begin of imposing conditions on American aid to Israel.

So how are American Jews to defend Israel against its critics when the indefensible simply cannot be defended? The good news is that most committed American Jews still stand with Israel. Yes, their political strategies have been disrupted by an out-of-control Bibi. Yes, they are less united than they once were. Yes, the Ben-Gvir-Smotrich duo is for them a festering sore and a punch in their gut.

But while they cannot defend this government, they can defend what Israel has been, sometimes if not always, before: A country that is committed to being a Jewish and democratic state; that believes in an independent judiciary; that is prepared to offer the Palestinians a political horizon; that embraces all Jews everywhere, no matter of what sort or stream; that guarantees full civil rights to Israel’s Arab citizens; and that demands an end to Haredi excesses and special privileges.

It is not easy to make this leap, and nothing is certain. With Israel’s 75th birthday approaching, American Jews are worried and a bit depressed. They are a realistic bunch who see Israel’s faults and injustices clearly, particularly now with the radicals in charge. But most Jews in America are not ready to give up on Israel—and they are not despondent. There is still a passion for liberty and justice in Israel, and despite the harm that Bibi has done, they have their sights set firmly on that.

When American Jews see the masses of anti-government protestors taking to the streets night after night, they are proud and inspired. Do the protestors not want the same kind of Israel that they do? Surely it is possible, then, that Israel will change direction, oust Netanyahu, rid itself of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and set out on a more centrist path.


  1. Thank you for giving voice to the many of us who love Israel dearly, but are so greatly disheartened by what we see happening now.

  2. Amen!!!!

  3. Thank-you, Eric, for your usual keen insight and straightforward analysis. I have found that the best way to respond to those who work to destroy what we cherish about Israel is to support those people and organizations who work towards the Israel for which we yearn, e.g., IRAC and the IMPJ.

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