When Israel’s minister of Diaspora Affairs flips the bird at Jewish demonstrators at New York City’s Celebrate Israel Parade, another minister grabs a bullhorn from a protester, and the prime minister picks as his media adviser a man with a rabid hatred for the president of the United States, it’s a no-brainer to ask why US-Israel relations are in deep trouble and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t been able to wrangle a White House invitation.
It’s not just that President Joe Biden doesn’t need another one of Bibi’s sanctimonious lectures about realpolitik. Speaking to CNN’s Farid Zakaria this past week, he called the Netanyahu coalition the most extreme Israeli government in his half-century dealing with Israel as a senator, vice president, and president.
The statement came as Netanyahu announced he was done negotiating and ready to push through the judicial coup that his extremist partners have been demanding, ignoring hundreds of thousands of demonstrators at home and expressions of deep concern by Jewish leaders around the world. Government leaders have branded the protesters “terrorists” and called on their own followers to confront them.
Granted, Bibi has more important things on his mind than going to the White House. Like staying out of prison. And a key part of his judicial overhaul is designed to be his “Get Out of Jail Free” card by effectively dropping the various criminal charges for which he is currently on trial.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has been able to do what no Arab, Islamist, Nazi, white supremacist, or antisemite has been able to do over 75 years of Israeli statehood – drive a wedge between American Jews and Israel, and undermine Israel’s historic and critical bipartisan support in the United States.
He’s had a lot of help, like that of Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli of middle finger notoriety. Chikli has “insulted US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, denigrated Reform Judaism, rejected the LGBTQ movement, accused J Street of being a hostile organization, and identified George Soros as a hater of Israel,” noted Prof. Gil Kahn, a Kean University political scientist. During a spring visit to the US, Chikli was unable to get any public meetings with American Jewish officials.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Israeli Right has largely written off American Jews, the Democratic party, and bipartisanship in favor of the Republican Party and its powerful evangelical Christian base. As one of Bibi’s closest advisers said, while the evangelicals send Israel their money and prayers, the Jews ask too many questions and want to give too much advice. Bibi once told an interviewer, “I speak Republican.”
Republicans, particularly after Donald Trump, are less likely to be concerned about autocratic, anti-democratic moves by the Netanyahu government than American Jews and a Democratic Party that consistently wins about 70% of Jewish votes.
A new survey by the non-partisan Jewish Electorate Institute, like earlier polls, shows Israel is not a high priority for Jewish voters. More important are democracy at home, abortion, guns, inflation, and climate change. It also found 72% of American Jewish voters prefer Biden over Trump, who has castigated Jews for not supporting him or Netanyahu and injected questions of dual loyalty.
Bibi has a long and ugly record of meddling in partisan US politics, embracing candidates, notably Trump, overwhelmingly opposed by most American Jews.
In a recent Jerusalem Post interview, Netanyahu declared US relations as solid as ever. He’s half right. Defense and intelligence ties are as strong, or stronger, than ever. But not so on the political-diplomatic front.
Bibi has a penchant for conflict with Democratic presidents. Maybe it is because they press for peace negotiations, criticize Israel’s human rights records toward Palestinians, oppose settlement expansion, and object to weakening Israeli democracy. Bill Clinton once complained to aides that Netanyahu “thinks he is the superpower, and we are here to do whatever he requires.”
Changing tides in Washington
THERE IS also a changing perception in Washington of the Palestinians, and it can be seen in Israel’s bid for Visa waiver status, exempting Israeli visitors from needing US visas. One stumbling block is the Israeli government’s failure to protect Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly dual American citizens, from attacks by violent settler rampages. Another is Israel’s restrictions on American citizens entering the West Bank and Gaza.
Particularly disturbing is the wave of vigilante violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the wake of recent terror attacks. Netanyahu has been unwilling, or unable, to act firmly against them, even though his own army commanders have called the rampaging hooligans “terrorists.”
Very few have been arrested, and in some instances, the soldiers just stood by or even participated. The vigilantes feel encouraged by having the backing of many at top levels of the government.
Orit Struck, the far-right National Missions minister, compared the country’s security chiefs to the Russian Wagner group of mercenaries, after they condemned violent settler attacks on West Bank Palestinians as “nationalist terror.” Bibi’s failure to fire her shows his weakness, or worse.
Having declared he is in full control of his government, Netanyahu can’t escape responsibility, even if he really isn’t.
The nationalist and religious extremists have him by the short hairs, particularly National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and he knows that if they walk, he’s out. They lead the Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionist parties, respectively.
Ben-Gvir is taking growing police powers despite his own record of three convictions for supporting a terrorist group and charges of hate speech against Arabs. He is a disciple of the late Meir Kahane and an admirer of mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. He was rejected by the IDF for his political extremism.
Smotrich, a settler activist, controls funding for governing the West Bank and jurisdiction over settlements through the Finance Ministry and a portfolio in the Defense Ministry. Both adamantly oppose Palestinian statehood and support the annexation of the entire West Bank into a Greater Israel where Palestinians cannot hold citizenship.
Netanyahu has said he wants to go ahead this week with the evisceration of Israel’s independent judiciary despite massive protests at home and abroad, particularly in the United States, which remains Israel’s most important ally and source of $3.8 billion in annual grant aid.
Ambassador Nides recently told a group of Jewish Democrats that if Netanyahu does follow through, the American reaction would be “quite dramatic.”
In light of President Biden’s CNN interview, he may be prepared to do more than tell Bibi to stay home.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.