The past week has been a clarifying one when it comes to the question of the proper role for outsiders in Israeli politics. Or perhaps more accurately, it has been clarifying in its revelation of the hypocrisy, cynicism, and nakedly political agendas that surround the question of the proper role for outsiders in Israeli politics. Whether or not American Jews are supposed to interfere, make their voices heard, or be used as election props or foils, the combination of Israel’s election season and the talk of a Trump peace plan has created an atmosphere in which it can be hard to pin down a consistent answer on this issue.
Following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s performance last week as marriage broker between the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party and the racist Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, the condemnation from American Jewry was overwhelming, including from organizations like AIPAC and AJC that are generally more reluctant to comment on Israeli political developments. The reaction from the Israeli right to comments from American Jewish institutions and American Jews was predictable in the tone and tenor of its response. Netanyahu tweeted that the left was being hypocritical and absurd in its criticism of what he had done, and while his missive was widely interpreted as a response to American Jewish organizations, he did not mention them and so his intended target was ambiguous. There was no ambiguity, however, in the headline the next day in the unofficial Netanyahu house organ Yisrael Hayom, which called out AIPAC as irresponsible for inserting itself into Israeli politics. Otzma Yehudit was even clearer, saying in a statement that Americans should move to Israel before getting involved in elections and that AIPAC members are not going to be the ones who suffer the consequences and bloodshed that will result from a left-wing government.
So the message was very clear, and frankly a sensible one: leave Israeli politics and Israeli elections to Israelis. And yet, as the news erupted in Israel that today Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was likely to announce that Netanyahu would be indicted, the Israeli right was touting American attorney Alan Dershowitz’s letter to Mandelblit stating his opinion that indicting Netanyahu would “endanger democracy and freedom of the press” – a letter that, naturally, Netanyahu retweeted. There is no issue that is more heavily looming over Israeli elections than the pending Netanyahu indictments, and Netanyahu’s legal team has repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) argued that Mandelblit cannot announce charges against Netanyahu until after the election. And lo and behold, following an outcry from Netanyahu’s camp about Americans commenting on issues related to the election comes the spectacle of Netanyahu himself directly elevating and publicizing an American commenting on issues related to the election. It turns out that not all outside interference and commentary on Israeli politics is created equal.
The situation is similarly open to interpretation when it comes to using the specter of President Trump to influence votes. A few weeks ago, Likud billboards went up in Tel Aviv with a picture of Netanyahu and Trump shaking hands – hilariously altered from the original photo to make Netanyahu appear to be Trump’s height – with the slogan “Netanyahu. In A Different League.” After Netanyahu posted it on his Instagram account, Trump retweeted the image, which taken together left the distinct impression for Israeli voters that Trump had endorsed Netanyahu’s reelection, all actively driven by Netanyahu and Likud inserting Trump into Israeli politics. In a little over three weeks, Netanyahu is going to leave Israel in the stretch run of a hectic campaign so that he can be cheered in public by nearly twenty thousand screaming supporters and fans at the AIPAC Policy Conference and be feted at the White House by Trump, all in the service of a priceless series of photo ops back home that will be based on the very foundation of using Americans to influence his electoral prospects.
Yet following Jared Kushner’s interview to Sky News Arabia earlier this week in which he discussed the White House’s peace initiative in broad terms, Naftali Bennett charged that the U.S. was plotting to influence the formation of a Likud-Kahol Lavan unity government that would create a Palestinian state and divide Jerusalem, while Likud responded that Netanyahu had protected Israel from the “hostile” machinations of President Obama and would continue to protect Israel with the support of the Trump administration. The implication of Bennett’s charge was that Trump was inappropriately trying to influence the election in a way that would be beneficial for his ultimate deal, while the Likud response wasn’t to agree that the U.S. was inappropriately interfering but to double down on the notion that Trump and Netanyahu should be thought of as a dynamic duo working to guard Israel from perfidious left-wingers. And of course, there is the additional angle of reminding Israelis that sometimes outside interference is bad, such as when Obama attempted to insert himself into Israeli politics.
The takeaway from all of this is that despite the howls about Americans sticking their noses where they don’t belong, this is often less a principled position than a political statement. Netanyahu doesn’t want to hear American Jewish complaints about his efforts to preserve and elevate the heirs to Israel’s most odious and reprehensible Jewish political movement since it isn’t our business, but he is happy to bask in the adulation of American Jews or utilize a famous American Jewish lawyer if it helps his campaign. Were there a left of center prime minister in office right now, no doubt the calculations about American Jews and the appropriate role for them to comment on Israeli politics would be just as instrumental.
Israeli politics – and even more importantly, Israeli elections – is and should be ultimately determined by Israelis. But the idea that non-Israeli Jews should not comment on the goings on in a Jewish state or the actions of a prime minister who has publicly claimed the authority to speak for and represent Jews everywhere is abject nonsense. Israelis often ask their American Jewish counterparts to take U.S. candidates’ views and attitudes toward Israel into consideration, which is a logical request, but it must go the other way as well. With the amount of time, money, effort, and emotional capacity that American Jewish organizations and American Jews spend on supporting and thinking about Israel and making it a central part of their identity, “sit down and shut up” is simply not an acceptable theory of how American Jews should act when they see something in Israel that they don’t like or that goes so far in offending their sensibilities as the Otzma Yehudit gambit went. If Israeli politicians want to use American Jews for their own political purposes when it suits them, then American Jewish involvement in Israeli political discourse is going to be a fact of Israeli political life.