Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dealt a devastating blow to the longtime partnership between American Jews and Israel when he engineered a scheme to bring the disciples of racist Rabbi Meir Kahane into the Knesset and ministries in the next Israeli government.
Mainstream and progressive American Jewish leaders, rabbis and educators roundly condemned the move, but will they have the courage to say that to Netanyahu’s face when he comes to Washington later this month to speak at the AIPAC policy conference?
I’ve personally witnessed great bravado by Jewish leaders when privately criticizing Israeli actions before dispatching top staffers to Jerusalem to deliver their tough message. But when it came to meeting face-to-face, these “courageous” leaders shoved their manhood in a blind trust and groveled, telling the prime minister how great he is, what a wonderful job he’s doing and how much everyone loves and respects him.
The time has come to speak truth to power.
If the AIPAC heads, Jewish members of Congress and other prominent American leaders don’t find courage when they meet privately with Netanyahu when he comes to Washington, they will be doing more damage to the bilateral relationship than any isolated freshman congresswoman dabbling in antisemitism could ever dream of.
The biggest question is this: If they do find the courage to speak out, will the prime minister, preoccupied with his political survival in an increasingly challenging domestic environment, care?
Netanyahu is coming to Washington the same way US President Donald Trump went to the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, to bask in the adoration of his faithful followers, appeal for votes from his base and lambaste his enemies with assorted lies and boasts.
To top off the visit Netanyahu is expected to see his friend and fellow would-be autocrat in the Oval Office and for a photo op – he got an endorsement last week while Trump was still in Hanoi – and to pose for campaign pictures (both men will use) like the giant ones on buildings around Israel.
There will be a discomfiting gloss to the US-Israel relationship in the embrace of two factually-challenged leaders under criminal investigation for corruption, with the grinning handshakes and cheering AIPAC crowds.
Underneath is a deep erosion in support from American Jews and a growing partisan divide that was spotlighted by Netanyahu’s decision to abandon bipartisan traditions and turn the alliance into a vehicle to serve his personal aggrandizement and personal ambition.
Never has that been more clear than in his embrace of the most rabid racist elements of Israeli politics. He engineered a self-serving alliance between the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), National Union and Bayit Yehudi parties, calling themselves the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP). He has promised them two ministries in the next Netanyahu government.
Otzma Yehudit was created by longtime followers of the late Kahane, whose Kach and Kahane Chai parties were banned from Knesset and have been on the US list of terrorist groups since 1997, the same year as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Netanyahu’s new partners oppose Palestinian statehood, as he does, plus they want to annex the West Bank and Gaza, expel the Arabs and other non-Jews, take over the Temple Mount, ban Jewish intermarriage and replace Israel’s democracy with a form of theocracy.
Otzma Yehudit has been called the Israeli version of the Ku Klux Klan.
Just as Trump saw “many fine people” in the KKK and neo-Nazis so does Netanyahu sees them in the Kahanists? Why else promise them high posts in his government?
The party is a home for admirers of Baruch Goldstein, the Kahane follower who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in a Hebron mosque 25 years ago. Some still celebrate the murder annually with a party at his grave.
Netanyahu dismissed critics of the merger as “leftists” and “the media.” (Sound like someone else we know?) But the outrage was more extensive than that, coming from across the political spectrum, with a few exceptions on the far Right. Most surprising was AIPAC, which didn’t have its own statement but endorsed a strong pronouncement by the American Jewish Committee and called Otzma Yehudit’s views “reprehensible.”
The AIPAC statement was weakened because it didn’t criticize Netanyahu by name and was quickly followed when the group proudly announced Netanyahu would be the featured speaker at its conference. What’s critical, though, is whether the lobby’s leaders speak truth to the prime minister in private or offer the usual sycophantic claptrap.
If Netanyahu does form the next government and keeps his commitment to give his extremist allies posts in his cabinet, he could endanger American support.
Sen. Robert Menendez (New Jersey), a senior Democrat and longtime Israel supporter, called the Kahanists “the antithesis of American values” and questioned how the United States can “be supportive of such an alignment.”
Several other Democratic senators also spoke out, including Ben Cardin, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. So did the ADL, J Street, New Israel Fund, the Union of Reform Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, Torat Chayim, Israel Policy Forum, Ameinu, Jewish Democratic Council of America, Democratic Majority for Israel and others.
Silence or support for Netanyahu’s embrace of the Kahanists came from the National Council of Young Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, ZOA, Republican senators Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney, and the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States doesn’t want to “interfere in the election,” right after Trump’s ringing endorsement.
Susie Gelman, the Israel Policy Forum chairwoman, warned that Netanyahu’s decision would “encourage and legitimize racists in Israel’s political establishment” and “will be difficult to stomach” for American Jews “who care deeply about Israel.”
Netanyahu’s move will help the pro-Palestinian BDS movement recruit supporters. Concomitantly, it also means pro-Israel political advocacy and philanthropy will be much more difficult.
America’s special relationship with Israel is in danger. It is threatened by what longtime friends see as shift away from historic ties of democracy, human rights and a desire for peace. Netanyahu’s alliances with religious extremists, ultra-nationalists, settlers, racists and his policies toward Palestinians have opened a widening schism between Israel and American Jewry.
It is time for responsible American Jewish leaders to do the right thing and let Netanyahu know he is sacrificing the future of US-Israel relations on the altar of his own political expediency, and it will not be tolerated.
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