Netanyahu is an existential threat to the ‘special relationship,’ say Zionist leaders

There is today massive opposition to Israel’s extremist new government in Israel, and in the American Jewish community too, with even establishment Jews threatening to boycott the rightwing country. Though one motivation for the American protest is fear for the job of the Israel lobby in the U.S.: that the new government’s fascistic steps could make it hard to sell the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel, a relationship that has granted Israel a high standard of living and impunity from war crimes violations.

Hey Israel — we are going to lose our figleaf on defending you from apartheid charges, is an all-but-explicit message.

Look at this statement by 120+ Jewish leaders saying that Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich should be shunned by the American Jewish community during his recent visit.


[W]e call on all pro-Israel Americans to understand that welcoming Smotrich here will harm, rather than help, support for Israel…

Those leaders represent the establishment Jewish Israel lobby, from Abe Foxman to Jeremy Ben-Ami to Dan Glickman to Ruth Messinger to Sharon Brous to Lester Crown.

Their statement stresses Smotrich’s anti-Palestinian views but itself bears traces of the same bigotry: it does not use the word “Palestinian” (referring to Smotrich’s “anti-Arab racism” and threats to communities based on “ethnic heritage”) surely so as to get rightwing Zionists like Foxman on board.

The same balancing act was performed by Halie Soifer, leader of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, when she took the “unprecedented” step of protesting the Finance Minister’s visit last Sunday in Washington. Soifer emphasized that Smotrich was undermining the “very foundation of US-Israel relations” by expressing “dangerous and racist” ideas that were anathema to American Jews.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, an Israeli-American, addresses March 12 protest outside the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington DC where Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was speaking to Israel Bonds conference. Progressive Israel Network organized the protest. It included Libbie Lenkinski of New Israel Fund (black tshirt) and Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah (in purple hat). Photo by Gili Getz and posted by Americans for Peace Now.

Soifer’s speech did not mention Palestinians. The rally she spoke to featured Israeli flags and was organized by a group of Israeli expatriates called UnXeptable aimed at saving Israeli democracy. Though it featured speakers like Libby Lenkinski of New Israel Fund who is concerned with Israeli racism, reports are that the rally excluded folks who point out that an apartheid state can’t be a democracy. They got to demonstrate around the corner!

Anti-apartheid protest by IfNotNow at Israel Bonds conference in Washington March 12, 2023. Several members of the group were arrested. Photo by Gili Getz and posted by Americans for Peace Now.

The Israel lobby appears to be struggling to save Israel and the lobby from the Israeli government. Several stalwarts of the lobby have said as much.

Israel’s alliance with “American Jews/the U.S. government” is an “existential strategic interest” that Netanyahu threatens, Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher wrote at Americans for Peace Now.

While Aaron David Miller (the former peace processor who told us that the U.S. negotiators served as “Israel’s lawyer”) warned that the new government puts “the special character and resilience of the US-Israeli relationship” at risk.

And David Makovsky and Dennis Ross warned Netanyahu months ago that if he formed a government with extremist racists Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, he would threaten the special relationship between the United States and Israel by giving an “enormous boost” to “Israel’s fiercest critics in the US.”

Shaya Lerner (r) speaks to an ADL webinar on the Israeli government’s plans. March 14, 2023. Screenshot.

That fear was many times expressed in a webinar about Netanyahu’s plans held by the ADL on March 14. Shaya Lerner, an Israeli staffer for the ADL, harped on concerns that the judicial overhaul would hurt Israel-U.S. relations by giving a platform to anti-Zionists to use the word “apartheid,” so as to delegitimize Israel as a “Jewish democracy.” He said, “We’re concerned about being able to defend Israel in some of the more hostile environments,” notably campuses in the U.S.

So the Jewish establishment leaders are trying to thread a needle here. Protest Israel’s new government but do nothing to undermine its supposedly democratic traditions: like granting Jews greater rights than Palestinians and forcing Palestinians to live behind high walls, conditions that Noam Chomsky says are worse than apartheid.

But this letter by 255 “business leaders and Israel supporters in America and abroad” threatening to pull billions out of investments in Israel over Netanyahu’s overhaul of judiciary never mentions Palestinians (who have been calling for boycott over their persecution for many years).

Neither does this letter from Israel lobby writers Daniel Gordis, Matti Friedman and Yossi Klein Halevi (all Jewish emigres to Israel from the United States). They are afraid of the danger to the lobby’s efforts to defend Israel.

We have explained and defended Israel against the campaign of distortions that seeks to turn the Jewish state into a pariah and will proudly continue to do so….The changes afoot will have dire consequences for the solidarity of Israel’s society and for its economic miracle, as our leading economists are warning. It will also threaten Israeli-American relations, and it will do grave damage to our relations with you, our sisters and brothers in the Diaspora….

Thankfully, Gordis, Halevi and Friedman describe the role of the lobby directly in their effort to preserve its work: “The North American Jewish community has steadfastly come to the aid of Israel at moments of crisis.”

Lerner also stressed the continued role of the Israel lobby: “We as American Jews have an obligation to express our support when Israel needs it most” — in security matters, and when people seek to delegitimize it.

Myself, I remain optimistic about these protests. They are a moment of huge dislocation in the Zionist sphere: the fact that the lobby is in disarray over its role and Israel’s racism is a great thing. Or as Mustafa Barghouti said today on BBC News, explaining his optimism, The world is finally getting to see what Israel is up to.

This is obviously an opportunity for those in the Jewish community who are honest about apartheid, including Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow and (members of) Americans for Peace Now to play a role in raising consciousness. The ADL will smear anti-Zionists as being just as dangerous as white nationalists, but it will not succeed in silencing us.

The Israel lobby arose out of Jewish communal solidarity 50 years ago, and one way it wielded power was by telling U.S. politicians, We speak for American Jews. Even in recent years its advocates could argue that 95 percent of American Jews were on board, except for a few self-hating nuts. The communal disarray is undermining these claims.


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