Longtime Israel supporters in U.S. turn outraged critics

With massive street protests, a mutiny by elite military reserve officers, and outrage from diplomats, academics, and former officials, Israel appears to be engulfed in an epic crisis.

Shockwaves of radical plans by the new right-wing Israeli government are also thundering in the US, alienating Jewish Americans and raising questions about the Biden administration’s ability – or willingness – to address the issues.

Israel’s flagship President Isaac Herzog bluntly warned of a civil war.

“The abyss is within reach,” Herzog said last week, delivering the somber assessment after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a compromise proposal on his coalition’s efforts to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court and national judiciary.

Netanyahu, on trial for corruption, wants to subjugate judges to politicians and make it easier for members of the Knesset or parliament to overturn court decisions. But the debate now goes much deeper than the judiciary into the nature of democracy itself, critics say.

“This is not just a political crisis; this is an existential crisis,” Rabbi Noah Farkas, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said hours after returning from an urgent trip to Israel late last week.

Although both sides have legitimate grievances, Farkas said the issues raised are absolutely fundamental.

“What does Jewish mean? Zionist? What does it mean to be an Israeli?” he said.

“This is a coup d’etat,” Alon Pinkas, who has served as a senior foreign policy adviser in several Israeli governments, said in an interview from his home in Tel Aviv. He and those expressing similar views believe the changes Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist government partners are planning would create a new form of government in Israel. It would be a regime changer, they say, creating something resembling a religious autocracy in place of the “Jewish and democratic state” that has long shaped Israel’s legal self-definition.

Of course, Israel’s democracy has always come with an asterisk: Palestinians living in Israel or under Israeli occupation in the West Bank or Gaza Strip do not have full equal rights. But for Israeli Jews, Israel’s democracy was unique in the Middle East.

But the government that took office on December 29 — after Israel’s fifth election in nearly four years — seeks to undo many of the foundations of that democracy, while jettisoning the shared values ​​that successive U.S. administrations have laid at the heart of the so-called led democracy. called ironclad diplomatic, political and economic ties between the two countries.

In addition to weakening the judiciary, members of the Netanyahu government want to expand Jewish settlements on land claimed by Palestinians; frustrate a Palestinian state; taking away rights for LGBTQ people and some minorities; favoring ultra-Orthodox Jews over the Reformed and Conservative branches of Judaism that make up the majority of US Jews; and make the country more religious by abolishing some regulations that preserve its secular character.

The new government includes the well-known extremists Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted a few years ago for inciting hatred against the Arabs, and Bezalel Smotrich. Ben-Gvir serves as Minister of Security and Smotrich as Minister of Finance, giving him considerable authority over the West Bank.

Since the formation of the coalition government, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have packed the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities to protest. Demonstrations turned violent this month when police clashed with protesters in a rare Israeli-Israeli confrontation.

Meanwhile, there has been an intense uptick in bloodshed in Jerusalem and the West Bank, with regular raids by the Israeli military seeking militants in Palestinian towns, Palestinian terrorist attacks on civilian Israelis, and able-bodied Jewish settlers attacking Palestinian civilians. It is the deadliest violence in years and authorities on all sides are preparing for the coming weeks of coinciding Passover, Ramadan and Easter holidays.

While the new Israeli government is also roiling Palestinian relations, the Netanyahu administration’s plans go too far for many Israelis and American Jews, including some who have long been Israel’s staunchest supporters. In addition to liberal pro-Israel organizations, critics now include more conservative groups and leaders, such as former Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, attorney Alan Dershowitz, and prominent members of Congress.

Many have joined Herzog’s efforts to find a compromise to push for a different path without coming across as overly confrontational with Israel.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (DN.Y.) and Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) led a group of 16 Jewish congressmen in a letter to Netanyahu, Herzog and Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid to express “deep concerns about the proposed changes to the… Expressing Israel’s governmental institutions and legal system” that could “undermine Israeli democracy and the civil rights and religious freedoms it protects.” The letter also called on the Israeli government to “suspend efforts to pass legislation” that “could fundamentally change the democratic nature of the State of Israel.”

In another letter to President Biden, 91 Jewish and non-Jewish members of Congress called on the government to take more vigorous action to ease growing tensions in Israel. They also noted the new government’s plans to expand settlements on land claimed by Palestinians and efforts to block an independent Palestinian state as additional combustible elements in the region.

“We urge you to use all available diplomatic means to prevent Israel’s current administration from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples,” the congressmen wrote.

So far, however, officials in the Biden administration have been flippant about announcing events in Israel. Having maintained a wait-and-see attitude even though the direction Israel was taking was becoming clear, most of the criticism was framed in highly diplomatic language, urging a search for consensus while expressing broad support for Israel.

Biden reiterated these points in a phone conversation with Netanyahu on Sunday, the White House said.

The president “underscored his belief that democratic values ​​have always been and must remain a hallmark of US-Israel relations,” saying that democratic societies need “real checks and balances,” while “fundamental change” rests on the “broadest.” must be possible,” the White House said.

In a highly unusual move involving a newly incumbent Israeli prime minister, Biden has yet to invite Netanyahu to the White House for an official visit. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also refused to meet with Ben-Gvir during a recent trip to Israel, and a visit by Smotrich to Washington last week sparked protest rallies outside his hotel.

Also on Sunday representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority held a security meeting with Egyptian, Jordanian and US officials in the Egyptian coastal city of Sharm el Sheikh aimed at reducing violence in Israel and the West Bank. It was the second such meeting in three weeks – previously such meetings had fallen by the wayside as the security situation in the occupied territories deteriorated. It’s not clear if the talks will have any impact; Some members of Netanyahu’s coalition have already dismissed them.

The Biden administration’s reluctance to launch a stronger critique of the Israeli government’s controversial policies has confused many Israelis and American Jews, who say that among world powers, only the US can influence Israel.

“What is the US doing to take the lead and squeeze the parties together?” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, who runs the liberal Washington-based advocacy group J Street, which campaigns on Israel-related issues. “To quietly pursue a solution behind the scenes is not up to date.”

Pinkas, the Israeli diplomat, said he did not believe the US government had a responsibility to divert Israel from what he called its “authoritarian course,” but that it was “negligent on the part of the Americans to continue to pretend as if nothing happened”.

Many US politicians have been reluctant to criticize Israel for fear of losing the support of Jewish voters. However, the voting behavior of American Jews is fairly stable: polls show that most Democrats are slim. The other large block of voters focused on Israel consists of white Evangelicals, who are more Republican-leaning.

Fear across the American Jewish community is evident in newspaper columns, at think-tank symposiums, and in synagogue webinars, with many fearing a shadow cast on US-Israel relations or further possible damage to Israel’s reputation in the world .

“Many American Jews have yet to understand the depth of the crisis,” said Farkas, the LA rabbi. “It doesn’t translate well. The pain. The fury. The tears. They are slowly waking up to it.”

J Street’s Ben-Ami said that “for most American Jews, support for Israel is a crucial part of their identity.”

“But if the core of Israeli society goes away,” he continued, “what will American Jews do?”

Susie Gelman, chair of the US-based Israel Policy Forum, was among the speakers at the protest rally outside Smotrich’s hotel in Washington last week, where participants demanded that he not be met by US officials.

“Racism, homophobia and extremism,” which Smotrich advocates, “represent and must not represent the values ​​of Israelis and the Jewish people worldwide.

“Israel’s future is closely tied to that of Jews in the United States and around the world,” Gelman added. “We must stand together with our Israeli family to fight for this future that is now being threatened so severely by this far-right government.”

Another protester, Dany Bahar, a professor of international affairs at Brown University, highlighted the impact that the Israeli government’s actions could have on the country’s economy, which has been fueled by a booming high-tech industry.

“What the enemies of Israel could not and will never achieve — seeing an isolated and economically struggling Israel — is happening because of the actions of the current Israeli government,” he told the crowd. “Capital is flowing out of the country. Companies and investors wonder whether their investments will pay off when the independence of the judiciary is at risk. This is a crisis Israel itself created.”

https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2023-03-21/long-time-israel-supporters-outraged-critics-biden-administration-distance Longtime Israel supporters in U.S. turn outraged critics

Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing Alley@ustimespost.com.

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