By barring Representatives Omar and Tlaib, Netanyahu made the president happy. But he has poisoned relations with America.
I am going to say this as simply and clearly as I can: If you’re an American Jew and you’re planning on voting for Donald Trump because you think he is pro-Israel, you’re a damn fool.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Trump has said and done many things that are in the interests of the current Israeli government — and have been widely appreciated by the Israeli public. To deny that would be to deny the obvious. But here’s what’s also obvious. Trump’s way of — and motivation for — expressing his affection for Israel is guided by his political desire to improve his re-election chances by depicting the entire Republican Party as pro-Israel and the entire Democratic Party as anti-Israel.
As a result, Trump — with the knowing help of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — is doing something no American president and Israeli prime minister have done before: They’re making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics.
Few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter in America, which is Israel’s vital political, military and economic backer in the world.
Trump’s campaign to tar the entire Democratic Party with some of the hostile views toward Israel of a few of its newly elected congresswomen — and Netanyahu’s careless willingness to concede to Trump’s demand and bar two of them, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, from visiting Israel and the West Bank — is part of a process that will do huge, long-term damage to Israel’s interests and support in America.
Netanyahu later relented and granted a visa to Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, for a private, “humanitarian’’ visit to see her 90-year-old grandmother — provided she agree in writing not to advocate the boycott of Israel while there. At first Tlaib agreed, but then decided that she would not come under such conditions.
Excuse me, but when did powerful Israel — a noisy, boisterous democracy where Israeli Arabs in its Parliament say all kinds of wild and crazy things — get so frightened by what a couple of visiting freshman American congresswomen might see or say? When did Israel get so afraid of saying to them: “Come, visit, go anywhere you want! We’ve got our warts and we’ve got our good stuff. We’d just like you to visit both. But if you don’t, we’ll live with that too. We’re pretty tough.’’
It’s too late for that now. The damage of what Trump and Bibi have been up to — formally making Israel a wedge issue in American politics — is already done. Do not be fooled: Netanyahu, through his machinations with Senate Republicans, can get the United States Congress to give him an audience anytime he wants. But Bibi could not speak on any major American college campus today without massive police protection. The protests would be huge.
And listen now to some of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — you can hear how unhappy they are with the behavior of this Israeli government and its continued occupation of the West Bank. And they are not afraid to say so anymore. As The Jerusalem Post reported on July 11, “Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose presidential candidacy has rallied in recent weeks, told two Jewish anti-occupation activists ‘yes’ when they asked her for support.’’
But who can blame them? Trump is equating the entire Democratic Party with hatred for Israel, while equating support for Netanyahu — who leads the most extreme, far-right government that Israel has ever had, who is facing indictment on three counts of corruption and whose top priority is getting re-elected so that he can have the Israeli Knesset overrule its justice system and keep him out of court — with loving Israel.
How many young Americans want to buy into that narrative? If Bibi wins, he plans to pass a law banning his own indictment on corruption, and then, when Israel’s Supreme Court strikes down that law as illegal, he plans to get the Knesset to pass another law making the Supreme Court subservient to his Parliament. I am not making this up. Israel will become a Jewish banana republic.
If and when that happens, every synagogue, every campus Hillel, every Jewish institution, every friend of Israel will have to ask: Can I support such an Israel? It will tear apart the entire pro-Israel community and every synagogue and Jewish Federation.
Then add another factor. By moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — and turning that embassy, led by a Trump crony, Ambassador David Friedman, into an outpost for advancing the interests of Israeli Jewish settlers, not American interests — Trump has essentially greenlighted the Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
Again, should Netanyahu remain prime minister — which is possible only if he puts together a ruling coalition made up of far-right parties that want to absorb the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians into Israel — Israel will be on its way to becoming either a binational state of Arabs and Jews or a state that systematically deprives a large and growing segment of its population of the democratic right to vote. Neither will be a Jewish democracy, the dream of Israel’s founders and still the defining, but endangered, political characteristic of the state.
Don’t get me wrong. I strongly oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — which Representatives Omar and Tlaib have embraced — because it wants to erase the possibility of a two-state solution. And I am particularly unhappy with Representative Omar.I know a lot about her home district in Minnesota, because I grew up in it, in St. Louis Park. Omar represents the biggest concentration of Jews and Muslims living together in one district in the Upper Midwest. She was perfectly placed to be a bridge builder between Muslims and Jews. Instead, sadly, she has been a bridge destroyer between the two since she came to Washington. But anytime she is legitimately criticized, Democrats automatically scream “Islamophobia’’ and defend her. That’s as disturbing as Trump.
I know that more than a few Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, who face so many challenges — from gang violence to unemployment — are asking why is Omar spending time on the West Bank of the Jordan and not on the West Bank of the Mississippi?
I love Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs — but God save me from some of their American friends. So many of them just want to exploit this problem to advance themselves politically, get attention, raise money or delegitimize their opponents.
In that, Trump is not alone — he’s just the worst of the worst.
TEL AVIV – It is Bibi again. Having unapologetically allied with a racist, Jewish-supremacist party, Binyamin Netanyahu has secured a fourth consecutive term as Israel’s prime minister. The Union of Right Wing Parties says Netanyahu promised it both the education ministry and the justice ministry, and who are we to doubt it? Along with Netanyahu’s other right-wing allies, the URWP has already backed a new law that would protect the prime minister from being indicted on pending corruption charges.
Israel’s latest parliamentary election has consolidated the country’s position within a growing bloc of illiberal democracies around the world. Once again, Netanyahu has won by mobilizing the people against the very state institutions that he is supposed to uphold and defend. In this election cycle, he shamelessly lambasted the judicial system and the police for doing their jobs. He attacked the media for uncovering improper behavior by his family and cronies. He pilloried public intellectuals for refusing to acknowledge his greatness. And he depicted the old Zionist “left” as traitors.
As for the Arab parties, they lost around 25% of their seats, owing partly to voter abstention. With Netanyahu having pushed through a “nation-state law” declaring the pursuit of “national self-determination” in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people,” Israel’s Arab citizens apparently are through lending credibility to a sham democracy. Throughout the campaign, they were treated as political lepers by practically every segment of the Israeli body politic.
The Israeli left, in particular, has been exposed as a bankrupt political project. In fact, Netanyahu’s Israel has swung so far right that the term “leftist” itself is now a smear. Both his party’s main challenger, the centrist Blue and White alliance, and the Labor Party have run away from the label. And both not only lacked the courage to stand up to Netanyahu’s maligning of Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state, but also refused even to consider forming a parliamentary alliance with Arab parties. On the Arab question, liberal Zionists have acceded to Netanyahu’s project of making Israel into a one-race, one-party state.
All told, the election amounts to a monumental indictment of Israel’s democracy. In a campaign dominated by personal smears and disinformation, not one substantive issue was debated seriously. It was as if the consequences of Netanyahu’s cruel neoliberal policies – a weakened welfare state and squeezed middle classes – did not matter at all. Nor was there any discussion of the unproductive Orthodox community’s dependence on state subsidies, which have grown substantially under Netanyahu.
And then there is the elephant in the room: the Palestinian question. Fearing the loss of conservative votes, the left and center parties did not make a single convincing statement – let alone offer a policy program – to address the greatest existential and moral challenge facing the country. Yes, candidates on the left paid lip service to the problem, and Benny Gantz, the colorless leader of Blue and White, muttered something about the need for a “diplomatic move” with respect to the occupied territories, but that was it.
Meanwhile, Gantz and those on the left said almost nothing when Netanyahu boasted that he could get US President Donald Trump to greenlight a partial Israeli annexation of the West Bank. And they were equally nonresponsive when Netanyahu took credit for the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
In fact, US-Israeli relations were another key issue that went almost unmentioned in the election campaign. Never mind that Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump and American evangelicals has cost Israel the support of a growing portion of the US Democratic Party establishment, or that his blank check to the Israeli Orthodox community has alienated America’s predominantly liberal Jewish community. After Beto O’Rourke, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, warned that Netanyahu is a “racist” who is damaging America’s special alliance with Israel, Israelis responded by extending that racist’s grip on power.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu touted his foreign-policy record. In addition to cozying up to illiberal Eastern European governments and Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, he claims to have bolstered Israel’s economic clout in Asia, made diplomatic breakthroughs in Africa, and forged covert partnerships with neighboring Arab countries, not least Saudi Arabia.
And here, too, Netanyahu’s opponents dropped the ball. They could have pointed out that his goal in brokering new partnerships is to head off international opposition to his planned annexation of Palestinian territory. Instead of using Israel’s diplomatic relationships to work toward an acceptable solution to its primary existential challenge, he has exploited them for his own chauvinist agenda.
Sadly, the election leaves no doubt about what awaits Israel in the coming years.
- A cabal of Netanyahu cronies and family members,
- racist messianic settlers, and
- Orthodox parties with opportunistic designs on the state budget
will drag Israel toward a new single-state reality that will resemble apartheid South Africa.
If there is any consolation, it is that the Israeli left and center – from Meretz and Labor to the Arab parties and Blue and White – still collectively represents almost half of the electorate. A bold leader who is willing to fight for Israel’s soul could prevail, but only by unapologetically allying with Israeli Arabs. That is not just the best electoral strategy. It is also the right thing to do.
Israel’s prime minister increasingly resembles America’s 37th president.
When the final chapter on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed.
The flaws came further to light on Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu called the inquiry “a witch hunt” and accused Mandelblit of being “weak,” sounding (surely not by coincidence) just like Donald Trump on the subject of Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation.
Israeli law allows Netanyahu to contest the indictment through a hearing, a process that could take as long as a year. He has no intention of resigning and hopes to win a fifth term when elections are held on April 9.
Perhaps he will. He shouldn’t.
That’s not because Netanyahu is necessarily guilty, or guilty of much. Previous Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, have been subject to legal inquests that hinge on relatively trivial crimes. The charges against Netanyahu — the most serious of which involves the claim that he helped a businessman obtain favorable regulatory decisions in exchange for positive media coverage — are still far from conclusive.
Netanyahu’s solution has been to scrounge for votes on the farther — and farthest — right. A few of those votes will come from Otzma Yehudit (or “Jewish Power”), a racist party descended from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. Its leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied a United States visa because Washington rightly considers Kach a terrorist organization. If Netanyahu manages to cobble together a ruling coalition, Ben-Ari could become a power broker within it.
That alone is reason enough to want to see Netanyahu given the boot. Add to the list his
- demagogic attacks on Israeli Arabs, his
- closeness to far-right European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his
- public sympathy for an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in cold blood, and a consistent picture emerges.
Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.
Nor is the blight simply moral. Jews the world over face a swelling and increasingly deadly tide of anti-Semitism, while Zionism has become a dirty word in left-wing circles. To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable. It emboldens the progressive assault on Israel. It leaves its defenders embarrassed and perplexed.
Most seriously, it weakens a central element in the defense of Israel and the Jews: moral self-confidence. Anti-Israel slanders may abound, but they will do little to hurt the state if a majority of Israelis understand they have no serious foundation in truth. Netanyahu’s behavior jeopardizes that confidence.
As an election approaches, Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s low-key attorney general, is under intense pressure from both the prime minister and the public
When Avichai Mandelblit first considered an offer to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration in 2013, he told Israel’s prime minister that he’d accept if he could finish his doctorate and stay out of politics, aides to him say.
Mr. Mandelblit managed to earn his Ph.D. in law. But now as Israel’s attorney general, he is at the center of one of the country’s biggest political storms.
Following two years of corruption probes targeting Mr. Netanyahu—and a recommendation by Israeli police to charge him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust—Mr. Mandelblit is weighing whether to indict his boss. He must also decide whether to do so ahead of April elections the Israeli leader called early to run for a fifth term. Mr. Mandelblit’s decision could come as soon as February.
At the heart of the political drama are two men who have responded to the crisis in starkly different ways. Mr. Netanyahu has used angry bluster and a public campaign to cast doubt on the corruption charges and his handpicked attorney general. Mr. Mandelblit, like the dogged doctoral student he once was before his 25-year career in the legal branch of Israel’s military, has avoided the limelight and burrowed into the legal merits of the corruption charges, say friends and colleagues. A decision to indict a sitting prime minister would be unprecedented and could upend Israeli politics.
“He basically holds Israel’s political destiny in his hands,” said Shalom Lipner, a scholar with the Brookings Institution think tank who worked for several prime ministers including Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Mandelblit’s role is especially delicate because he also serves as the government’s top legal adviser, which means he’s both advising Mr. Netanyahu and judging him for alleged crimes against the state.
Notably, the two men continue to hold private meetings. Those have been the subject of several court challenges, including one from a government watchdog group that petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court last year to halt them. The country’s top court rejected it, saying Mr. Mandelblit can be trusted to maintain “a ‘Chinese Wall’ between his various responsibilities.”
.. But their working relationship hasn’t stopped the embattled prime minister from attacking the investigation. Recently, Mr. Netanyahu has released a series of videos urging Mr. Mandelblit not to announce any decision to indict him ahead of the April 9 elections, saying such a move would unfairly sway the outcome.
Mr. Netanyahu has also launched a slick social media campaign playing down some of the allegations—that he traded favors for better news coverage—by comparing bribery without money to soccer without Argentine player Lionel Messi or celebrity Kim Kardashian without her husband, the rapper Kanye West.
“What are they talking about when they say bribery? About money? About envelopes? About bank accounts? About Greek Islands? Not at all! They are talking about favorable coverage,” said a visibly upset Mr. Netanyahu in a prime time televised speech earlier this month.
Protesters, alleging that Mr. Mandelblit is delaying a decision to benefit his boss, have gathered outside his home every Saturday since late 2016, booing his name alongside effigies of Messrs. Netanyahu Mandelblit and the other major players in the probe— billionaires, media moguls and witnesses—all in prisoners’ garb. His father’s grave was recently vandalized and he has been the subject of threatening graffiti.
“Netanyahu thought that by bringing the election ahead he would pre-empt Mandelblit and win the election and then deal with the legal issues after it,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi, The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” “But since Mandelblit does not seem to be intimidated it’s now becoming a major issue.”
Politically, it is more complicated. Even if he’s indicted, Mr. Netanyahu is still favored to win the elections, with recent polls showing his supporters saying he can still manage Israel’s economy and protect the nation’s security. But Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge would be finding coalition partners willing to form a government with him if he’s indicted. He would get the chance to defend himself in a pre-indictment hearing before charges proceed.
The stress of the job shows. Mr. Mandelblit’s hair, once light red, has noticeably grayed.