Look Who’s Running the Foreign Ministry

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The letter signed by 100 American Jewish leaders and sent two weeks ago by the Israel Policy Forum to Benjamin Netanyahu is surprisingly tame. It does not include any criticism, even veiled criticism, of Israeli policies.

Actually nothing in it contradicts the current government policy in any way. It even compliments Netanyahu’s “leadership” in mending relations with the Turkish government. The letter urges the prime minister in very gentle tones to take “concrete confidence-building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Now that is exactly what Netanyahu himself said he plans to do. He even reaffirmed his commitment to the two-state solution ‏(twice‏) during President Barack Obama’s visit last month. The Americans didn’t specify what steps they believe Israel should take; they didn’t even mention the settlements or the occupation.

But that is not what’s surprising about the letter. After all, the signatories represent the middle-of-the-road, pro-Israel establishment of American Jewry, and while many of them would describe themselves as liberals, some are identified with the Republican Party and all are stalwart Zionists. These are not the men or women to rock the boat.

What is surprising is not the gentleness of the letter but the style of the response from deputy minister Zeev Elkin, Netanyahu’s caretaker at the Foreign Ministry until Avigdor Lieberman’s breach-of-trust case is over.

Quoted in Maariv, Elkin said that “the responsibility of the government is first of all the security of its citizens and ensuring a safe future for Israel.” And up to this point who could argue with him?

But he added that “pressure from overseas should not guide the prime minister in his careful management on the diplomatic process.” Pressure? Who applied pressure? Pressure is lobbying against the government’s policies in Washington, or financing opposition groups within Israel. All the Israel Policy Forum did was to send a polite note of encouragement to Netanyahu to continue the policies he himself claims to support. What was Elkin complaining about?

‘Butt out’ not enough

But it wasn’t enough for Elkin to tell the great and the good of the largest Jewish community in the world to butt out, he also had his own foreign legion at hand. According to Maariv, a group of Russian Jewish oligarchs and rabbis had signed their own counter-letter in which they wrote that “national security decisions must not be made under external pressure, not of international public opinion, not of the American administration and not even of the influential American Jewry.” How convenient for Elkin that their views mirror his. But they went further when they accused the American Jews of serving a hostile agenda. “The letter sent from the U.S. worries us mainly because it reminds us to some extent of the Soviet era and our history, when the Communist leadership used prominent Soviet Jews to pressure Israel.” To which Elkin added approvingly, “I am happy that the leaders of the Russian Jewish community understand what American Jews sometimes forget.”

Now Elkin was born in the then-Soviet Union, and before Ehud Olmert offered him a spot on the Kadima Knesset list in 2005 ‏(an offer that Olmert no doubt has come to regret‏), he was working on his Ph.D. in Jewish history. So I am not going to argue with him the finer points of the Russian Jewish experience in the Communist era, but just on the surface, his claim is preposterous. He is supporting the suggestion that the mainstream Jewish leadership in America is somehow being used, perhaps unwittingly, by an anti-Israel administration to coerce Israel into taking steps that will damage its security. Does he actually believe that or is he simply trying to score political points with the Likud membership and with the Russian-Jewish constituency? I’m not sure which of the possibilities is worse. Is he really comparing American democracy to the Communist dictatorship or to Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule?

This is the man who is now running Israel’s foreign ministry and though I never believed I would say this, I am starting to miss Lieberman. Not only has Elkin totally mischaracterized the Israel Policy Forum’s letter, casting its signatories, veteran Jewish leaders, as dupes; he has also taken sides with one Jewish community against the other. What are American Jews to understand from a deputy minister who is basically lecturing them to learn from the unquestioning loyalty of their Russian counterparts?

Ridiculous construction

If Elkin hadn’t built this ridiculous construction there would have been a good case to defend his position that the Israeli government has a sovereign duty to act according to the interests of its citizens, not the wishes of Diaspora Jews. Five and a half years ago, Israel had a different prime minister with different policies and when Ehud Olmert came under fire from right-wing American organizations such as the Orthodox Union and World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, who attacked him for negotiating Jerusalem’s future with the Palestinians without taking the views of the Diaspora into consideration, Olmert answered quite bluntly, “Does any Jewish organization have a right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not? This question was decided a long time ago. The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel.” He even snubbed Lauder by not appearing at the WJC conference in Jerusalem.

Olmert was right in denying the right of anyone to dictate to Israel’s government what it could and could not negotiate, and so would Netanyahu if he chose to say so. But Elkin has gone much further than this. He has falsified the intentions of America’s Jewish leadership and cast aspersions on their intentions and loyalty, all for the sake of a headline. He is causing damage to Israel’s international relations and its ties with the Diaspora, and American Jews should demand that Netanyahu reprimand him and replace him if he is not willing to publicly apologize.

Likud MK Zeev Elkin. key backer of Jewish nation-state bill.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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