New gov't brings challenges for pro-Israel lobbies - opinion

I don’t see American Jews turning against Israel, just turning indifferent. And in the long term, that could be just as bad – or worse.

 THEN-PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a video address to AIPAC in 2019. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a video address to AIPAC in 2019.
(photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

The new government taking shape in Israel is posing unprecedented challenges for its American friends and supporters. It is easily the most ultranationalist and ultra-religious in the nearly 75-year history of the Jewish state, and it won’t get the unconditional support that some of Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters demand and expect from the Diaspora.

Powerful coalition partners are demanding new laws that demean most American Jews. They want to change the Law of Return by saying one Jewish grandparent is not enough for new immigrants to claim Israeli citizenship. They demote the Reform and Conservative movements, which includes the vast majority of American Jews, to a not-quite-kosher-enough status.

It is a coalition with a surfeit of corrupt, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, intolerant and theocratic players. It starts at the top with a prime minister currently on trial on three separate corruption charges and whose main goal seems to be returning to power and staying out of prison.

To that end, some of his new partners have promised to change the law to get the charges dropped and give him future immunity. And everyone knows political favors aren’t free. One demand is to “reform” the judicial system by giving Knesset the power to override the High Court by a simple majority.

This is the government Israeli citizens elected and a recent poll for Maariv shows they like it and would do it again. The same cannot be said for most American friends of Israel. It is no secret that the incoming government makes most major Jewish organizations anxious.

 LIKUD PARTY leader and head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu visits Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market in October 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) LIKUD PARTY leader and head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu visits Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market in October 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The political center of gravity is shifting in opposite directions in both countries. As Israel moves to the far Right, Netanyahu is making the mistake of thinking the US is going in that direction as well.

He has made no secret for years that he believes the Republicans will dominate American politics for the foreseeable future, making the Democrats and still-mostly-Democratic Jews less relevant. And since the Evangelicals are more numerous and more comfortable with the far Right in Israel by several magnitudes, he believes he can ignore the Jews.

It is not just policies that Israel’s friends find troubling. As Thomas Friedman pointed out in The New York Times, “Four of the top five party leaders of the incoming coalition government – Netanyahu, Arye Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir – have either been arrested, indicted, convicted or served prison time on charges of corruption or incitement to racism.”

“Four of the top five party leaders of the incoming coalition government – Netanyahu, Arye Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir – have either been arrested, indicted, convicted or served prison time on charges of corruption or incitement to racism.”

Thomas Friedman

Deri, who served a prison term for bribery and was later convicted of tax evasion as interior minister, will be getting his old job back. The Jerusalem Post said Avi Maoz, who will head the “National Jewish Identity” office and have authority over the educational system, “is a racist homophobe, rejects Jewish pluralism, believes that the place of women is in the kitchen, and that their main function is to give birth to and raise children.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai told Channel 12 News, “Israel is being transformed from a democracy to a theocracy. Smotrich has called him the “liar son of a liar.”

Ben-Gvir is demanding the repeal of the law banning politicians who incite racism or reject Israel as a democratic state from serving in Knesset. It was enacted in response to the notorious late Rabbi Meir Kahane, but Ben-Gvir, a Kahane disciple who himself has been convicted of inciting hatred, wants it removed, Israel Hayom reported.

Netanyahu has said he will be in control, not his extremist partners, and he will have “two hands on the wheel.” Two right hands. He may be saying that publicly, but the overriding question will be which promises will he keep – those privately made to his coalition partners or public commitments to the media. He knows his coalition partners are fickle friends and if he wants to stay in power, he has to keep them from jumping ship. Netanyahu, who is secular, told journalist Bari Weiss, “Israel is not going to be a government by Talmudic law,” but even his friends will tell you he is unreliable. Remember the commitment to pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall? 

How will the pro-Israeli lobbies in the US deal with the new government?

It won’t be easy for pro-Israel organizations to lobby in support of this new government. In the battle of the leading lobbies, J Street and AIPAC argue to reporters and donors over which one is more pro-Israel and what that means. Both have saddled themselves with burdens that limit their rights to the title.

One will be selling an image that doesn’t fit the facts; the other promoting what, for the foreseeable future, is a fantasy.

AIPAC, the larger, older and wealthier, is too tightly linked to Likud and Republicans, tainted by its endorsement of dozens of MAGA election deniers. On the Left, J Street’s embrace of the Palestinian cause and strident critics of Israel corrode its credibility. Many in the Jewish community feel that J Street applies a double standard, being much tougher on Israel while more tolerant of Palestinian bad behavior. 

AIPAC will defend the altered and highly problematic status quo. With its longstanding ties to Netanyahu, it is unlikely to show much light between them. It will be interesting to watch how the group plays the role of “explainer” of Netanyahu’s Kahanist partners. 

J Street will be a vocal critic of the new order in Israel. It speaks to the growing progressive wing of younger Jews who support the two-state process, oppose the settlement movement, and want a more active US role in reviving the peace process. Most American Jews and Democrats (for whom the Jews vote 3:1) share those views.

I’ve been in touch with some of my former AIPAC colleagues and none would feel comfortable lobbying for the new government. “Bibi is doing things I can no longer support,” said one. “The new government is anti-Arab and devaluing democracy.” “I could not, in good conscience, lobby on behalf of the new government in Israel.” They see the new government as “more autocratic than democratic.”

The biggest problem facing AIPAC is generational. There are few remaining in Congress – and the constituents they listen to – who witnessed Israel’s birth and struggle for survival. Many recall its great victory in 1967, but more only know Israel as a swaggering, nuclear-armed regional military superpower.

One Capitol Hill veteran told me, “Our greatest danger is that the young generation of American Jews no longer sees themselves when they look at Israel.”

Remember that old story from Golda Meir that Moses led the Jews as they wandered for 40 years, and then took them to the one place in the Middle East with no oil? No more. It is now producing abundant  natural gas. The Economist just ranked it as the fourth best-performing economy in 2022. The standard of living exceeds that of all its neighbors and matches several European nations.

With a recession possibly on the American horizon, it could become harder to sustain or expand $3.8 billion in annual military aid, although the amount was locked in for 10 years during the Obama administration. It appears safe for the time being.

THE STRATEGIC partnership between our two countries remains strong and I see no threats to it, but the political-diplomatic relationship could face difficulties as the Kahanists rise. And the impact of Israel’s accelerating rightward tilt will inevitably undercut American Jewish commitment to the pro-Israel cause – a serious long-term threat to that relationship.

Israel enjoys deep emotional support here, but its political clout is greatly diminished by its own actions as it sinks on the list of priorities for American Jewish voters. Just as the US is testing its own commitment to democracy as fascist-leaning MAGA extremists follow a leader who wants to tear up parts of the Constitution and overthrow the last election, Israel faces its own more serious threat to democracy with its new government taking over.

I expect Netanyahu will try to keep some of those most extreme ministers from coming to America to give speeches or meet with US government counterparts. The Biden administration has reportedly quietly sent word that it could be difficult to work with some of them.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports some 330 American rabbis have pledged to ban extremists in the Israeli government from speaking at their synagogues and communities.

Israelis just voted in the most ultra-religious, ultra-nationalist government in the nation’s 75-year history. That is their right. But they may look around and see that many of their friends in America and elsewhere don’t share their enthusiasm. I don’t see American Jews turning against Israel, just turning indifferent. And in the long term, that could be just as bad – or worse.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist and former AIPAC legislative director.