Comment: When moral values and political interests collide

Should Netanyahu have responded more forcefully to Charlottesville?

People gather for a vigil in response to the death of a counter-demonstrator at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, outside the White House in Washington, U.S. August 13, 2017.  (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
People gather for a vigil in response to the death of a counter-demonstrator at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, outside the White House in Washington, U.S. August 13, 2017.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
The start of the weekly cabinet meetings on Sunday mornings is a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in short sound bites, weighs in quickly on issues either at the top of the public agenda or ones he would like to put there.
It could be about violence on the Temple Mount, about a UNESCO vote erasing the Jewish people’s connection to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, or about rising antisemitism in Europe or an antisemitic incident there.
For instance, on February 15, 2015, hours after an Islamist terrorist killed Dan Uzan, a volunteer security guard at a Copenhagen synagogue, Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting that “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews, and this wave of terrorist attacks – including murderous antisemitic attacks – is expected to continue.
“Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home,” he said, adding that “we are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe.”
One might have expected, therefore, that at this Sunday morning’s weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu would have related to the events the day before in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a collection of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, white supremacists and alt-righters rallied carrying Nazi flags and torches, and shouting anti-Jewish slogans.
One woman, Heather Heyer, was murdered on Saturday by what police said was a deliberate attack by a man who rammed his car into a group of people engaged in a counterprotest to the white supremacist rally.
But Netanyahu did not mention those events at the top of the cabinet meeting, choosing instead to speak about the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East team to again try to advance the peace process, and the announcement of the appointment of a new national security adviser.
It was not until Tuesday that Netanyahu commented on the events that were deeply disturbing the US Jewish community. On his secondary “PM of Israel” Twitter account – rather than his more widely seen personal Twitter feed – he wrote: “Outraged by expressions of antisemitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred.”
Netanyahu’s critics had a field day, slamming him for not loudly and clearly getting before a camera and taking an unequivocal stand against what was happening in America, especially as he is a prime minister who often warns of the threat of antisemitism. They mocked him for only posting a tweet after Trump, who waffled on Saturday night after the events in Charlottesville, came out with a slightly stronger condemnation on Monday, only to walk that back at a raucous press conference on Wednesday.
Netanyahu’s defenders respond by saying that matters are “complicated,” and that the prime minister – coming off of eight years of a very difficult relationship with former president Barack Obama – does not want to pollute what he has said is a special relationship with Trump. This relationship is also a powerful domestic political asset for Netanyahu against those who argue he is isolating Israel in the world.
One senior government official said that, while he would have preferred had the prime minister come out and immediately condemned what happened in Charlottesville in strong terms, “I also understand why he did not.
“Look, we are dealing with a highly volatile, fluid and unpredictable situation,” he said. “There are things that are critical, critical for Israeli security, above all the Iranian issue. Netanyahu also has these US peace negotiators coming over, and has to make sure we are not in a situation again where Israel is blamed for foiling the peace process.”
Although agreeing with those who say that taking a stance against antisemitism wherever and whenever it occurs is indeed a moral issue, the official added, “We can’t ignore the fact that we have to make sure that we are on the same page with the head of our principal ally in the world, and the person who is going to make decisions fateful for Israel’s future and security.”
Asked why a clear statement by Netanyahu in his own voice against antisemitism in the US would complicate matters with Trump, the official, noting Trump’s now famous unpredictability, replied: “Can you tell me it won’t?”
Gideon Meir, a former deputy director-general in the Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador to Italy, disagrees entirely. He said there are certain issues which are not subject to other considerations, and that fighting and speaking out against antisemitism is one of them.
Meir tied the paucity of Netanyahu’s reaction to what happened in Virginia to his reluctance last month before going to Hungary to condemn antisemitic attacks there against George Soros.
“There is a line here,” Meir said. ”When he has interests with world leaders, he does not comment on matters that are at the very heart of the Jewish consensus.”
Asked, however, whether wanting to build strong relationships with world leaders is not a legitimate consideration for the premier in deciding how to react to events, Meir said, “When it comes to antisemitism, there can be no realpolitik. There can only be a clear moral voice from the Jewish state.”
The Foreign Ministry, Meir said, sponsors a conference each year on fighting antisemitism. “How can we enlist the world for a fight against antisemitism, if we are not the first to come out against it?”
Aryeh Mekel, another former veteran diplomat who served as Israel’s consul-general in New York and later as ambassador to Greece, said that there is another issue here as well: the needs of American Jewry. Mekel said that this community, highly disturbed by the events and Trump’s reaction to them, expects to hear a clear voice against white supremacy and antisemitism emanating from Zion.
Mekel, who said that voicing a clear position against antisemitism and neo-Nazism is a principle that trumps all other interests, added that “the American Jewish community is expecting this, and they should not be discounted here.”
Michael Oren, the deputy minister in the prime minister’s office and ambassador to the US from 2009 to 2013, said that Netanyahu should condemn the neo-Nazis, but not stop there.
“It is very important we condemn neo-Nazism and antisemites, and I also think it is important we condemn antisemitism on the Left that prevents women from wearing the Star of David and marching in progressive parades,” he said referring to recent events in Chicago.
Oren argued that American Jewry faces a bigger problem from antisemitism on the Left than it does from the Right. “It doesn’t mean that there is not antisemitism on the Right; there is. But the bigger problem is on the Left. Go ask any American Jewish kid on campus. They will tell you that.”
Danny Ayalon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the US from 2002 to 2006, also said that coming out with a clear condemnation of the recent events in the US is a “no-brainer.” He said that Netanyahu could condemn the antisemites and neo-Nazis without slamming Trump.
“I think President Trump would be the first to understand that the raison d’etre of Israel as the Jewish state is to defend Jews all over the world,” he said. “The prime minister of Israel, any prime minister of Israel, is also seen as the informal leader of the Jewish people worldwide, and as such has a responsibility to condemn any manifestation of antisemitism; the slightest one, in no uncertain terms. And that need not have any effect on the ties with the White House.”
But does anyone really not know what Israel’s position is on neo-Nazis and antisemitism?
Ayalon said that the point in weighing in on the situation in the US is not – as it is in some other countries – to coax the authorities to legislate laws against antisemitism and then to enforce them. Rather, he said, with everyone – both Jews and non-Jews – looking at Israel’s position on these types of matters, the point is simply to “take a principled moral stand.”