By James M. Dorsey
Israel’s first post-Netanyahu government is seeking to rebuild fractured relations with the Jewish Diaspora and rebrand the country as a liberal rather than an illiberal democracy against the backdrop of uncertainty about future US policy towards the Middle East and continued unconditional backing of the Jewish state.
Uncertainty about US reliability has been reinforced by the US negotiation with the Taliban and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan that focused on getting the United States out of a two decade-long forever war with no consideration of the consequences for Afghan forces and other US allies in Afghanistan as well as in the Central Asian country’s neighbourhood.
“We cannot be sure that when the Americans will be needed, they’ll be here to help,” said Yaacov Amidror, a former Israeli government national security advisor.
Spearheaded by Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and backed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the outreach attempts to ensure Israel’s umbilical cord with the United States and restore Israel’s image as a democracy that defends Jews and serves as a safe haven irrespective of their political views.
Relations with powerful, liberal-leaning Jewish communities in the United States and Britain have frayed as a result of former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s attempts over more than a decade in office to control media coverage, subvert the judiciary, refuse entry to the country by Jewish critics of Israel, align himself with anti-Semitic attacks by men like Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban on liberal philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros, and hardline policies towards the Palestinians.
The impact of Mr. Netanyahu’s polarizing policies was evident in statements by Jerome Nadler, a prominent pro-Israel US Congressman of Jewish descent.
“We don’t leave our values at the U.S. border; we disdain Mr. Netanyahu’s vile, hateful rhetoric and are horrified by his efforts to align himself with Donald Trump and an overtly racist, Kahanist, political party in his own country. We do not blame an entire country – nor repudiate its very basis for existence – because of the cruelties of the government leading it. ... We can simultaneously reject the transgressions of Mr. Netanyahu’s government, validate Palestinian suffering, and support their right to self-governance, all while opposing efforts meant to challenge Israel’s right to exist,” Mr. Nadler said.
He made his remarks in a New York Times op-ed in May that Mr. Netanyahu was still prime minister and on the day a ceasefire took effect in Israel’s war with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Mr. Nadler was referring to followers of the late racist Israeli American rabbi Meir Kahane.
Rebuilding relations with significant segments of the Jewish Diaspora is crucial for Israel not only to secure continued US support but also to bolster the Jewish state’s claim to occupy a moral high ground. That claim, already challenged by Israel’s often harsh occupation of Palestinian lands for more than half a century, is further disputed by mounting Jewish and non-Jewish criticism of the Jewish state.
Freedom House noted in its 2020 report that over Mr. Netanyahu’s 12 years as prime minister Israeli democracy had suffered "an unusually large decline for an established democracy.” The Economist Democracy Index, one of the three foremost democracy rating indexes, rates Israel as a "flawed democracy" with civil liberties far lower than in all EU countries, including Hungary.
‘If we see more of the radical left and progressive liberal Jews continuing to support BDS and Black Lives Matter, and similar to the Palestinians they relate to Israel as a genocide state or an apartheid state, we may lose America,’” Mr. Shai, the diaspora affairs minister, warned. Mr. Shai was referring to the Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions or BDS movement that seeks to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank.
American Jews “may be very critical of what’s going on in Israel — I also have a lot of criticism — it doesn’t matter. We should share the same values, we should believe in the same things, we should get together and help each other for a common future,” the minister said.
Mr. Shai noted in a Cabinet meeting that ensuring support from the American Jewish community took on added significance with the U.S.-Israel memorandum of understanding on military aid slated to expire in 2026.
Mr. Shai suggested by implication that Israel considered American Jewish support more important than the backing of Evangelists favoured by Mr. Netanyahu even though they constitute a far larger community and voting bloc in the United States. American Jews traditionally vote in majority Democratic rather than Republican.
Separately, Mr. Shai, addressing British Jews, told a Jewish publication in the United Kingdom: “Israel is your country as much as my country. This is a Jewish state and a democratic state… We welcome criticism from you and anyone and we can argue about things.”
Political scientist Anders Persson, going beyond Mr. Shai’s efforts, has argued that “with Netanyahu gone, one of the most important tasks for the Bennett/Lapid government is to rebrand Israel as a liberal democracy. Being seen as a liberal democracy is without a doubt the most important part of Israel’s hasbara, or public diplomacy,” particularly after Tunisian President Kais Saied’s recent power grab in what was largely seen as the Arab world’s only democracy, Mr. Piersson said.
Foreign Minister Lapid sought to repair tense relations with the European Union, the world’s largest bloc of liberal democracies, during a recent visit to Brussels by emphasizing a shared belief in human rights, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society and freedom of religion. Mr. Bennett is expected to emphasize the same points during a visit to Washington in the coming weeks.
The Israeli focus on the Jewish Diaspora is fed by the influence of progressives in the Democratic Party as well as opinion surveys of the Jewish and non-Jewish public in the United States.
Democratic progressives have called for probes into alleged Israeli violations of US law, accused Israel of apartheid and violations of basic human rights, and attempted to block the sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel.
A recent survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, found that 34 per cent of American Jewish voters agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” 25 per cent approved the notion that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 22 per cent asserted that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.”
The poll found that 9 per cent of voters agreed with the statement “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.” Among voters under 40, that proportion was 20 per cent. Similarly, support for Israel among young American Evangelists is dropping.
Another poll published this month by the University of Maryland found that only 8.1 per cent of Democrats blame the Palestinians for Israel's offensive on Gaza in May, highlighting the growing partisan divide over perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in American politics. The majority of respondents - 62.7 per cent - said America's role in mediating the conflict should "lean toward neither side,” a significant drop in past blind support for Israel.
Israeli concerns about its relations with the US are buffeted by the fact that the United States is seemingly reviewing its military commitment to the Middle East. The review comes at a time at which the US and Israel have a lot of common concerns: the fate of the moribund 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program; US policy towards Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China; the decay of the Palestinian Authority; the collapse of Lebanon; and prospects for instability in Jordan.
The Bennett government has to further carefully manage the fallout its plans to expand Israeli settlements on the West Bank despite the Biden administration’s objections. Settlements are a bete noire for progressives in the Democratic Party and other critics of Israel. The move would end a 10 month-long Israeli moratorium on settlement activity.
A potential trade-off to prevent a crisis by Israeli settlement policy may be a restrained US response to the expansion or building of new settlements in exchange for a halt to Israel’s eviction of Palestinians from their homes, demolition of Palestinian houses, and tolerance of West Bank settlements established without government approval.
“We will act in a responsible and reasonable way and avoid provocations regarding settlements. The Biden administration knows we are going to build. We know they don’t like it, and both sides don’t want to reach a confrontation around this issue," said an Israeli official.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute