As we turn the page from the year that is concluding to the one about to begin, some old things are new again. Despite a brief reprieve, once again Americans are expressing grave concerns about goings-on in Israel, and once again Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu is pushing back and telling Americans to mind their own business. The latest iteration of this seemingly never-ending cycle of criticism was kicked off by a New York Times weekend editorial about the incoming Israeli government, which prompted a quick response from Netanyahu on Twitter pushing back. There is plenty of fertile ground for litigating who was right, who was wrong, who is laying out legitimate concerns, and who is demagoguing. Rather than do that though, it presents an opportunity for each side to reflect on the other’s concerns and to adopt a resolution for the new year that will help keep the relationship from going completely off the rails.
Looking at what the Times editorial did and did not say is instructive, as is looking at the specifics of Netanyahu’s response. The editorial was focused first and foremost on Israeli democracy and some of the threats that are anticipated on that front and to an eventual two-state outcome that will provide rights and sovereignty for Palestinians. It raised nearly every concern that has been on the horizon since Israel’s November election, from the specific personalities of Itamar Ben Gvir and Avi Maoz, to potential changes to the status of West Bank territory and Israeli policies on the Temple Mount, to contemplated restraints on the power of the Israeli Supreme Court, to Israel’s shifting demographics that are making the country more religious and more right-wing. What the editorial did not do was endorse a punitive response, call for reducing American support for Israel, or threaten specific recriminations for any of the moves that have been endorsed by Netanyahu and his coalition partners.
Netanyahu’s response to the New York Times did not exactly respond to the points that were raised. His initial tweet charged that the editorial was a call to delegitimize and undermine Israel’s democratically elected government, and said that he would ignore the Times and instead work to build a stronger and more prosperous Israel, secure the future of the Jewish state, and strengthen ties with the U.S. and other countries in the Middle East. He then deleted his first version and posted an amended version instead that opened with the pithy line, “After burying the Holocaust for years on its back pages and demonizing Israel for decades on its front pages,” and then continued with his previous points. Netanyahu did not address the substance of the editorial’s claims or concerns, but dismissed it as delegitimization of Israel and its democracy masquerading as poor advice.
Netanyahu does not really care what the New York Times editorial board thinks of him, and he isn’t going to shift his policies based on its approval or lack thereof. The New York Times knows full well that its editorial neither delegitimized nor undermined Israel, and isn’t going to be cowed into silence by Netanyahu. Most people will wave this entire thing off as performative and retreat to their political and ideological camps, and it will just be another link in the chain of mutual enmity between Netanyahu and his supporters and liberal Americans and their institutions. But there is an opportunity here, if both sides want to take it, to be sensitive to what is driving the other and maintain the ability to criticize and push without it turning into a downward spiral.
From the American side, the new Israeli government is going to present a target-rich environment for criticism. The New York Times editorial was titled, “The Ideal of Democracy in a Jewish State Is in Jeopardy,” and talked about shared values and a commitment to democratic ideals, and certainly the idea of common values has a new patina of skepticism with which it is associated given the rhetoric and proposals coming from the far-right politicians who will be serving as ministers. But it is important to grasp the sensitivity that Israelis have to being held to different standards, to being preemptively judged, and to being taken to task for things that they view as purely domestic issues. For all of the legitimate concerns about Israel potentially taking steps to neuter its Supreme Court, to impose more religious-based restrictions on public spaces, and to introduce illiberal ideas and values into its education system, those things are problems for Israelis and only tangentially, if at all, for most Americans. The heightened criticism that will come from the U.S.—both the government and wider society—now that Israel is under new management should be on issues that specifically impact and implicate the U.S. Israeli policy in the West Bank falls into this category, as does Israeli activity on the Temple Mount, both of which affect American security policy, relationships with other regional partners, and larger American diplomatic goals. Americans, and even more so American Jews, are entitled to whatever robust opinions we like about anything and everything that takes place in Israel, and we also should not abandon Israeli allies and partners who are working for a more liberal Israel. But if we ever want a majority of Israelis to listen, we should be more strategic in what we criticize at the loudest volume and how we do it.
From the Israeli side, Netanyahu’s response was emblematic of an Israeli tendency to immediately react with derision to Americans as if we cannot possibly understand Israel’s situation or place in the world, and to tar all liberal criticism as delegitimization. A common Israeli talking point is that criticism of government policies is welcome so long as it is legitimate, yet it is hard to find an example of right-wing Israeli leaders ever welcoming such criticism rather than lashing out. In this instance, the criticism was not over nebulous illiberalism but over specific policies that have been pushed by specific Israeli leaders, and came with the following nearly paragraph-length caveat: “The relationship between Israel and the United States has long been one that transcends traditional definitions of a military alliance or of diplomatic friendship. A body of deeply shared values has forged powerful and complex bonds. A commitment to Israel, both in its security and in its treatment by the world, has been an unquestioned principle of American foreign and domestic policy for decades, even when Mr. Netanyahu openly defied Barack Obama or embraced Donald Trump.” This editorial is precisely the type of legitimate criticism that Israeli leaders say is fair game, yet Netanyahu’s response was to say that the New York Times was undermining and delegitimizing Israel, while throwing in a Holocaust cheap shot to boot.
Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders would be better served by understanding that Americans have concerns about Israeli policy precisely because of the transcendent relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and precisely because we have bought into the idea of deeply shared values—one that is pushed more often by the Israeli side than the American one. The upsides of this unique relationship for Israel are obvious, and they come with the inevitable liberal American criticism when Israel strays too far afield from American notions of liberal and democratic values. There is no such thing as a special relationship where one side is supposed to give full backing and support for everything while shutting up and butting out. Wanting Israel to live up to American standards is deeply frustrating for Israelis, but if they want Americans to keep standing up for them through thick and thin, they should be more strategic in accepting criticism that is hard to swallow without immediately resorting to the worn-out and tired tactic of invoking delegitimization and the specter of Nazi Germany.
We are about to go through a rocky period in U.S.-Israel relations at both the governmental and societal levels. Neither side is going to sacrifice its essential principles or worldview, but each side should do what it can to be a bit more understanding of the other nonetheless, and demonstrate empathy even in the absence of sympathy or alignment.
The problem is not “living up to American standards,” but the blatant hypocrisy and double standards. America has killed many more Arabs and Muslims in the last 25 years than Israel has killed in 70 years. America has done as it has seen fit wherever it sees fit. There is absolutely no evidence that if America has a violent unruly ethnic group akin to the Palestinians, that it would treat that ethnic group any better than Israel treats the Palestinians. America has also never articulated why another Muslim Arab state (in the West Bank and Gaza) would be of any benefit to the USA, our “values” or really of any benefit to the world.
Basically, America should stop preaching that Israel must comply with “liberal” values that America has never lived up to. At least Russia and China, et. al., do not harry their allies with fake moral virtue signaling.
Your first error is taking the NY Times editorial as serious journalism, and representative of Americans. It is not. The Times is a paper representing a specific view to a slice of the nation’s population, a perfect echo chamber.
More so, the editorial insults our intelligence with the line, “This board has been a strong supporter of Israel and a two-state solution for many years, and we remain committed to that support.”