Generally speaking, there are two Benjamin Netanyahus. Bibi the First, who was prime minister in the 1990s and again in 2009-2015, carefully advanced his right-wing agenda while flirting with moderates and playing more or less by the rules. Bibi the Second, who has led Israel since 2015 and was just reelected for a second term, is a radical right-winger who caters to Jewish supremacists and is bent on rewriting the rules in their favor – as well as his own.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that 2015 was also a turning point in Netanyahu’s relations with the liberal majority of American Jews. The “historic bonds” between liberal Jews and a right-wing Israel that evades peace, entrenches the occupation and refuses to recognize their own Jewishness were always problematic but had been carefully maintained nonetheless. But tensions flared after Netanyahu’s in-your-face-Obama speech to Congress and his Arab-baiting electoral victory in March 2015, grew into an open breach with the dead-on-arrival Western Wall agreement, and evolved into a rupture in the wake of Netanyahu’s embrace of Donald Trump as well as his coalition’s Nation-State Law and anti-democratic initiatives.
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Now that Netanyahu is expected to set up the most radical right-wing government in Israel’s history, there is a clear and present danger that the rupture will turn into a historic schism; That, try as they might, liberal American Jews who still view themselves as supporters of Israel will no longer be able to identify or sympathize with the Jewish state; That the once ironclad alliance between Israel and its greatest Jewish diaspora, with all its historic, national, religious and strategic importance, is in a tailspin and is on its way to crash and burn.
There are optimistic best-case scenarios, of course, in which the tragedy is avoided, or at least postponed. Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to avoid criminal indictments might fail, along with his bid to stay on as prime minister despite them. On the assumption that it exists, Trump’s long-awaited “deal of the century” could theoretically dismantle Netanyahu’s hyper-nationalist coalition, forcing him into a unity government with Benny Gantz that would avert an open split with American Jews. And for those who believe in fairy tales, there is always a chance that Netanyahu will see the light, repent and devote himself to unification and reconciliation, rather than division and resentment, inside Israel and in its ties to American Jews. Yeah, right.
American Jews would do well to start preparing at least for the more plausible worst. Barring the unexpected, Netanyahu’s new coalition seems set to cross their remaining red lines, shatter their last lines of defense and put their already strained loyalties to an impassable test. When pride is supplanted by shame, when hope is replaced by despondence, when they can no longer look in their children’s eyes or at themselves in the mirror, liberal American Jewry will turn away from Israel, and for many of them, never to return.
It is far more plausible, as things stand now, that Netanyahu’s coalition, founded on an unwritten devil’s deal of immunity for annexation, could very well concoct the legal loophole that will free Netanyahu from the long arms of the law, thus plunging Israel into internal upheaval and constitutional crisis and ensuring many more years of his rule. Netanyahu’s new justice minister, whether it is his own Rottweiler Yariv Levin or the annexationist and homophobic Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, will be given free rein to neuter the Israeli Supreme Court and to subordinate human and civil rights to the government’s ethnocentric and anti-democratic beliefs and policies. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Meir Kahane disciple that Netanyahu tried to get elected, could still wind up in the Knesset’s Legal Affairs Committee, to push things along.
If American Jews found Netanyahu’s outgoing government hard to stomach, its turbo-charged incoming version will deliver a punch to the gut that could knock them out completely. Efforts to stifle both internal and outside dissent are bound to accelerate, the alienation of Israel’s Arab and Druze minorities is likely to escalate and after the demolition of Israel’s core liberal values, only rubble will remain. American Jews will find it increasingly hard to cling to the Israel that was, or to pin their hopes on a pipedream that it can be the same again.
And this is without the ominous clouds of annexation that appeared on the horizon in the last days of the election campaign. Once the dust settles on the Trump peace plan, and on the reasonable assumption that Palestinians will reject it outright it a non-starter, Netanyahu’s partners will press him to make good on his campaign pledge to apply Israeli law to “all the Jewish settlements” in the West Bank. The pretense that a two-state solution is still viable will collapse, along with efforts to defend Israel against charges of de-facto apartheid.
And it goes without saying that whatever slim prospects existed for a rapprochement between Orthodox-dominated Israel and Reform and Conservative Jewry have now been reduced to nil. With a 16-strong ultra-Orthodox contingent holding the balance of power, buttressed by like-minded Knesset members in the Union of Right-Wing Parties and Likud, conversion reform is off, a Western Wall deal is a mirage and recognition of Reform and Conservative Jewry is no more than hallucination. Given the prevailing, ignorance-fed animosity of Netanyahu’s new coalition towards non-Orthodox and non-Israeli Jews, Reform and Conservative Jews can thank their lucky stars if they won’t be officially branded as outright heretics who should be consigned Gehenna.
Support for Israel among liberal American Jews will crumble under the new and unbearable weight and strain. They will no longer be able to settle the cognitive dissonance between their hostility to Trump’s white nationalist agenda and their protection of an Israeli government that is arguably worse. Once Israel crosses the Rubicon and turns into a country that looks like a hybrid of East European authoritarianism, South African racialism and South American jingoism, it will lose liberal American Jews forever.
Which means, to mutilate Don Mclean: Bye-bye American tie. Without American Jewish liberals pushing its cause, the anti-Israel wing of the Democratic Party will encounter only passive resistance on its way to total conquest. The reaction from Netanyahu and his colleagues will be fierce: Democrats will be branded Israel-haters and their Jewish supporters as their collaborators. All that will remain of the once-proud alliance between Israel and American Jews will be burned to the ground, leaving scorched earth and broken hearts in its wake.
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