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Posted by on Mar 2, 2023 in By Eric, Haaretz | 1 comment

American Jews: Lobby the Biden Administration to Act Against Israel’s Obscene Government

I have never once lobbied against an Israeli government. But Netanyahu’s judicial coup, his offensive against democracy, must be stopped. That means U.S. Jews must do the unthinkable, and urge a strong American hand with Israel.

It is time for a new set of rules. The United States government needs to pressure the Israeli government to halt its overhaul of the judiciary and its retroactive authorization of illegal outposts in the West Bank. And mainstream American Jewish organizations need to encourage U.S. President Joe Biden to act before it is too late.

If the judicial “reforms” promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become law Israel could be a very different country within a matter of months. Israelis could wake up one day in a state that is no longer democratic, no longer willing to guarantee fundamental liberties and minority rights, no longer secure economically or militarily, no longer welcoming to Jews of the world and no longer supported by substantial segments of the American public.

Israel is facing an existential crisis of its own making, as serious as any threat posed by terrorists within or enemies on its borders. And the attempted judicial coup is especially serious, rooted as it is in zealotry and intolerance and debasing as it does the whole process of democratic governance.

We should not assume that what Netanyahu is doing has broad support from the Israeli public. Fewer than half the electorate voted last November for the parties in the coalition. And recent polls indicate that while most Israelis back judicial reform of some kind, about 65 percent oppose the particular package that the government is pushing.

And then there are the demonstrations, an inspiring and heroic example of the strength of Israel’s civil society. A mass movement has come into being, drawing young and old, secular and religious, left and right, into the streets. Never before in Israel’s history has the civilian sector participated in such large numbers, week after week, in a movement of protest. If an American demonstration drew the same crowd size relative to its population, it would be equivalent to about 4 million American protestors.

So how, then, has Netanyahu come so close to achieving his judicial “revolution?” The answer is that the prime minister, hoping to escape the legal charges against him, has permitted an unhinged minority to take over a democratic government and use its power to push through a radical constitutional change.

If this seems incredible, in some ways it is. The political world’s small Religious Zionist and Haredi fringe has insinuated itself into the Israeli mainstream, with the backing of a prime minister who is a criminal defendant. And now that it controls the Israeli government, it has declared its intention to put an end to freedom and democracy as these values are generally understood. In all likelihood, Bibi is indulging in the fantasy that he is controlling the fanatics in his coalition. In actuality, it is the other way around.

This is why the judicial coup must be stopped. And if it can be halted in no other way, then American Jews must not hesitate to call upon their government to pressure Israel. This means asking the Biden administration to intervene, and reaching out to pro-Israel members of Congress, particularly in the Democratic Party, as well.

Pressure could be applied in a variety of ways, some of which were presented in a courageous column by Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. One is to pause discussions on Israel’s entry into the visa waver program until Israeli policies change. Another is to announce that Netanyahu will not be invited to the White House until meaningful progress is made on the differences between the two countries. A third is to indicate that, if authorizing illegal outposts continues, America would be willing to present its own resolution to the UN Security Council on the subject, going beyond the statement expressing it issued last week expressing its concern.

Will it work? It is a long shot, to be sure. But it is not impossible. As noted, Netanyahu’s popular support for his reforms is weak, and if forced to choose between Bibi’s judicial coup and undiminished American backing for Israel, the great majority of Israelis, including his own voters, will choose the latter.

It is also clearly an American interest for Israel both to reach a broad consensus on judicial reform and to avoid a new wave of annexations in the territories. Failure on the judicial front could result in political chaos or collapse in Israel. Failure to stop annexation will lead to instability in the region, weaken the Abraham Accords, distance the Saudis from Israel and America, and make it that much more difficult to restore security ties between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Americans will not, of course, in any way excuse increased terrorist murders of Israelis in the territories, as just happened in Hawara; but neither will they accept Israeli settlers rampaging through Palestinian villages, burning homes and killing innocents in retaliation. More Palestinian terror and marauding Israeli vigilantes are yet additional reasons why the Americans might agree to enter the picture.

All of these factors add to the urgency of the moment. Surely, avoiding another Intifada and promoting calm are as vital to Israel as they are to the United States, and undermining Israeli democracy hurts rather than helps Israel’s struggle against terror. But bizarrely, Netanyahu, desperate and deranged by his legal troubles, is less likely to see this than is Biden. What is needed, then, is a strong American hand with Israel, taking, at the very least, some or all of the steps noted above.

Still, Biden has other things on his mind, and may be reluctant. And for the United States to take such action would be a dramatic departure from its usual way of doing business with Israel.

It is also true that American Jewish groups will be resistant to push him. Lobbying the American government against an Israeli government — even when the American one is pro-Israel and the Israeli one is anti-democratic — is rightly problematic for American Jews. In my half-century of Zionist activism, I have never once lobbied against an Israeli government in Washington. Interventions of this sort, once begun, can set a dangerous precedent with uncertain outcomes.

Nonetheless now is the time when those risks must be taken.

Statements alone, as we have seen, have had virtually no impact. American officials and Jewish organizations have spoken out emphatically and repeatedly on the planned judicial measures, but Israel’s government affirms that the overhaul will be passed without delay.

U.S. statements on illegal outposts, joined by some Jewish groups, have not prevented Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich from receiving sweeping powers to expand settlements throughout the territories. It is time for action.

The Biden administration is as friendly to Israel as any of its predecessors. It has frequently said that America has a commitment to Israel, and that commitment must remain as fixed and permanent as the sky. It has also said that American obligations to Israel rest not on the shifting sands of geopolitical strategy, but on the hard rock of moral obligation.

To whom, then, should American Jews turn? To an American administration committed to the Jewish state and democratic values, or to an Israeli government, democratically elected but now leading an obscene offensive against judicial review, human rights, democracy and freedom?

Israel’s democracy has always been imperfect, of course, but it was once a beacon in a world darkened by tyranny nonetheless.

But now, for the first time in Israel’s history, its government is leading its citizens methodically toward the abyss. It has bestowed authority on the Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs, barbarians who pander to the basest instincts of Israeli society.

It has disillusioned Israel’s own citizens, and given Israel haters everywhere cause to rejoice. And it has left American Jewry and Jews of the world alienated and confused.

This, then, is a critical moment in the history of the Third Jewish Commonwealth. History will judge us all. What did we do when the Jewish supremacists attempted to destroy the Jewish state from within?

Were we willing to permit the undoing of democracy to which the Jewish people and the Zionist movement were always committed? Were we prepared to bow the knee to Kahanism, which distorts Zionism and mocks the ideals of Judaism? Were we ready to give in to the race-baiters and provocateurs who sit in Israel’s cabinet and exploit ethnic hatred for their own purposes?

Millions of Israelis say they refuse, reminding us daily that Israel was created to achieve democracy and freedom in Zion reborn. And perhaps the heroic protestors and the determined opposition, with their mighty passion for democracy, will win their battle.

But if they do not, American Jews must not be bullied out of their beliefs. They must not give up on Israel as home and a gate to holiness to Jews everywhere. They must not permit a distorted view of Judaism, advocated by the radical forces of the far-right, to become an instrument of repression in the hands of Israel’s leaders.

If the sole way to accomplish this is to turn to the American government for support and intervention, then so be it.

If this is the only option, we must call autocracy by name and preserve the democratic destiny of Zionism.

1 Comment

  1. Rabbi Yoffie is correct that America, Israel’s patron, must intervene to help Israel come to its senses. But I’d like to hear him additionally address two problems that his call raises. 1. Netanyahu has written off 2 million American Jews in favor of the support of 30 million American evangelicals. If Biden were to refuse to host Netanyahu at the While House, he would still go to Congress (as he did when Obama was President) and in doing so embarrass Biden (or any future president). 2. By seeking the support of members of Congress, most likely, he writes, among Democrats–isn’t Rabbi Yoffie setting up a situation where Republicans will grab the opportunity further to portray Israel as a wedge issue from which they will gain an advantage among American voters claiming (falsely) to be Israel’s true supporters?

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