Netanyahu's legacy will be permanently darkened by corruption - opinion

WASHINGTON WATCH: Is Netanyahu a threat to the Jewish Diaspora?

 PRIME MINISTER Netanyahu saw US President Joe Biden for an hour in a New York City hotel room, sandwiched between presidential meetings with other foreign leaders in town for the UN General Assembly, the writer notes. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Netanyahu saw US President Joe Biden for an hour in a New York City hotel room, sandwiched between presidential meetings with other foreign leaders in town for the UN General Assembly, the writer notes.

A bedrock of citizen lobbying to strengthen US-Israel relations dating back even before the formal establishment of the Jewish state has been the principle of shared interests and values. It was the message that lobbyists like myself and millions of grassroots activists have preached. And it was delivered with sincerity and a deep commitment.

We spoke of the values of democracy, civil liberties, human rights, the rule of law, and even shared enemies. We conveyed Israel’s message, “We’re like you.”

No longer. An alarming pair of recent studies revealed Israel’s stature is steadily dropping in the United States, and its prime minister is the one most responsible for dragging it down. Too many Americans no longer see today’s Israel as a country that reflects our basic political and social values. 

A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that, while Americans view Israel as “more of a friend than a foe” only three in 10 see Israel as an ally with common interests. In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Americans once overwhelmingly favored Israel, but the poll found that today two-thirds profess neutrality.

A Pew Research survey showed most Americans held a favorable view of Israel (55-41%), but it left something big to worry about: that number is almost reversed among those aged 18-29, who view both governments unfavorably and “tend to express cooler views toward the Israeli people and warmer views toward the Palestinians.” 

The decline has been going on for several years, exacerbated by disagreements over Iran, the Palestinians and the extremist rhetoric of the ultrareligious-ultranationalist government, but it accelerated over the past year as that government has sought to overthrow the independent judiciary. 

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting the judicial coup for months. On leaving Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened them to Iran, the PLO, and other enemies. This from a prime minister who, in the words of Americans for Peace Now CEO Hadar Susskind, leads a “government of fascists, felons, and fundamentalists.” Some of his coalition partners have demonized protesters as terrorists and enemies of the state.

NETANYAHU’S FLACKS tried to convince journalists his US visit was a success – he saw President Joe Biden, got a White House invitation a time and on terms TBD, but somehow they forgot to mention unprecedented demonstrations against an Israeli leader by American Jews and Israeli expats, far outnumbering his supporters.

The American Jewish community is divided over Israel as never before, and Netanyahu did nothing to heal those wounds on last week’s visit. The protest movement followed him here. Long gone is the day when public displays of opposition to an Israeli leader were taboo.

He met with selected American Jewish leaders on both sides of the issue, but pointedly barred leftist groups like J Street, American for Peace Now, and the Israel Policy Forum, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. 

“Netanyahu used his trip to traffic in falsehoods, misinformation, and disinformation regarding his far-right coalition’s planned judicial overhaul, the conflict with the Palestinians, and the imminence of a deal with Saudi Arabia,” Ben Samuels pointed out in Haaretz.

He saw Biden for an hour in a New York City hotel room sandwiched between presidential meetings with other foreign leaders in town for the UN General Assembly. No one knows yet what Biden really said, but this president has made no secret that he doubts Netanyahu’s veracity (he once inscribed a photo “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”) and he has a particularly strong distaste for his judicial coup – the president publicly stressed the importance of “checks and balances in our systems.” 

Netanyahu responded by asserting “Israel’s commitment to democracy,” something very much in doubt these days. Netanyahu, presiding over an extremist coalition of his own making, is not unlike House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a leader at the mercy of his extremist partners who could dump him on a whim.

US-based lawmakers express concern

In Washington, lawmakers expressed to the PM their strong concern about violent settler vigilantes and the government’s failure to do much to curb them (some ministers even cheer them), treatment of the Palestinians and the absence of any prospect for peace negotiations and, most of all, the threat to judicial independence. These are people who understand his power grab, and they know his talk of democracy is bobbymyseh (nonsense). 

The tensions do not appear to have impacted security and intelligence cooperation, but political-economic-diplomatic relations could deteriorate as discontent grows on Capitol Hill. As the schism between American Jewry and this Israeli government widens, politicians won’t be able to ignore it but instead see it as a cue to shrinking support. They have to wonder how and who can repair it or if this is a Humpty Dumpty government. 

If politicians here see Israel’s bedrock support in the Jewish community fracture and begin to crumble, they may feel that if the issue is no longer important to the supporters, why should it be to their representatives? That is particularly critical among Democrats, who have won three out of four Jewish votes for many years and see Netanyahu – not unreasonably – as a partisan Republican. 

Netanyahu carries much of the blame for this as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and a man who aides have said prefers evangelical voters over Jews because they’re more numerous and less inclined to question his actions and policies.

His stock with Democrats never really recovered from 2015, when he blindsided president Obama and led Republican lobbying against his Iran nuclear agreement. Obama’s vice president remembers that pointed insult clearly. Netanyahu’s embrace of his fellow-accused felon Donald Trump, who many Jews consider an antisemite who repeatedly questions their loyalty, doesn’t help either.

Netanyahu’s legacy, regardless of any prior achievements, will be permanently darkened by his corruption, his autocratic ambitions and his role in trying to derail Israeli democracy. He is currently on trial for bribery, fraud, and other charges while he’s trying to change the laws that put him in the dock. But that is small next to his damage to Israel’s friendship with America, support of the Jewish Diaspora and, most important, to democracy and the rule of law. Friends don’t let friends drive over a cliff.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.