Crisis of Historic Proportions

Israel's Ties With U.S. Jews Are the Latest Victim of the Netanyahu Era

As one cabinet minister put it, by throwing U.S. Jews to the dogs, Israel 'didn’t just lose money, we lost our strategic arm in the U.S.' | Analysis

Illustration: Dery and Litzman squeeze Netanyahu like an orange.
Amos Biderman

Something new has been added to the litany of wreckage and ruin of the Netanyahu era, in the form of Israel’s relations with American Jewry. It, too, did not escape the teeth of the bulldozer relentlessly thrusting ahead, like the light-rail tunnel-digging machine that’s penetrating deep into the soil of Tel Aviv, ripping up anything worthwhile that still remains – whether it’s the delicate fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs, a free and independent media, human rights organizations, or pluralism and freedom of worship.

Time and again, we rediscover that to ensure his personal and political survival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to pay a high price. Not at his own expense, heaven forbid, nor from his own pocket. This week, he took the Jewish community in the United States, which is his greatest supporter and whose representatives, leaders and lobbyists he wields like a seasoned puppeteer, and simply threw it to the dogs, without batting an eyelash.

At the end of the weekly cabinet meeting which, ironically, was supposed to focus on “ties with the Diaspora,” he asked for a vote – under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties – on the cancellation of the compromise plan for pluralistic and egalitarian worship at the Western Wall.

On the same day, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the “conversion bill,” aimed at strengthening the monopoly of the state-run courts for conversion to Judaism, and precluding recognition of private Orthodox conversions in the country. The new legislation will in effect rule out conversion performed by representatives of Judaism’s Conservative and Reform streams, and targets tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who live in Israel, serve in the army, pay taxes and raise children – but cannot be officially registered as Jews.

Of the 10 or so ministers who remained at the tail end of the cabinet meeting, only one, Yuval Steinitz (Likud), spoke out against cancellation of the Western Wall plan and also voted against scrapping it. Steinitz spoke with passion: “This is a wretched decision,” he said. “It will cause a serious rift with the Jewish people. We agreed on a compromise, we passed it in the government – why are we backtracking? What kind of talk is this?”

Another Likud minister, Yariv Levin, was sanguine. “We don’t owe them [American Jews] a thing,” he said. “They don’t live here, so they shouldn’t complain.”

To which Steinitz responded: “I thought we called ourselves the Jewish state, not the state of the Israelis alone.” He expected support from others but got none.

Jewish men pray at the men's section of the Western Wall, the most holy site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on June 27, 2017.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

In addition to delivering a resounding slap in the face to American Jewry, the Israeli government also spat in its face. Both backpedaling on an agreed-upon compromise at the Wall that was approved a year and a half ago and got stuck, and a draconian conversion bill. This creates a break of historic proportions. A true tsunami. “We didn’t lose the Reform Jews,” one minister noted, “we lost the next F-35. And we didn’t just lose money, we lost our strategic arm in the United States. It’s important to understand: This is not just a crisis with American Jewry, it’s a crisis with the United States of America.”

The prime minister could not summon up the courage to go before the cameras and explain the decision. Now that’s leadership, that’s taking responsibility – in quintessential Bibi style. Instead, his bureau sent the media a video statement from by cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman. He looked as frozen and inauthentic as a POW with a rifle aimed at his head.

“It is important for Prime Minister Netanyahu that every Jew be able to pray at the Western Wall,” Braverman declaimed from a pathetic text that gives cynicism a bad name.

Netanyahu could have had himself filmed saying the same thing. It turns out that there are occasions when even he, to whom falsehood, fabrication and deception are no strangers, feels uncomfortable.

Power hungry

Israel’s cabinet ministers and prime minister have never looked so pathetic and cowed – like abject slaves of two Haredi parties that, in terms of their number of MKs, represent about 10 percent of the public. It’s not the Haredi politicians who should be blamed, though; it’s those who capitulate to their demands and abandon the general Jewish public in order to stay in power for yet another year and to entrench the strategic alliance with the ultra-Orthodox in advance of the next election.

The leaders of Shas and United Torah Judaism, Aryeh Dery and Yaakov Litzman respectively, and their ilk, are intoxicated with power. They are resorting to extortion because they know that, thank God, there are people to extort. Ariel Sharon, the last true leader Israel had, would never have let a disgrace like this come to pass. He would have kicked that bunch out of the window and reshuffled his cabinet. But Netanyahu has given the Haredi members of the coalition everything they could have dreamed of: cancellation of the new military draft law, restoration of National Insurance allowances plus retroactive compensation, along with awarding of key ministerial portfolios and other powerful governmental posts. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

As mentioned, the chief victims of the religious conversion legislation will be immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom vote for the Yisrael Beiteinu party. As everyone knows, that party is headed by a powerful leader. His word is his bond. Paragraph No. 36 of the coalition agreement between that man, Avigdor Lieberman, and Likud states, “Laws relating to religion and state will not be moved forward, will not be approved and will not be enacted unless they are affirmed unanimously by representatives of all the member parties of the coalition.”

That’s a clause that gives him the right to cast a veto. All that Lieberman needed to do in order to torpedo the bill in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Black Sunday was to send a representative in with a photocopy of the agreement. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), who chairs the committee, would not have put the bill to a vote, and part of the catastrophe would have been averted.

But Lieberman chose not to do that, and was not present when the subject came up for discussion in the cabinet. He left a note with a “nay” vote. The next day, he convened his party’s MKs and warned that Israel was becoming a state of halakha (Jewish religious law). Theodore Roosevelt once enjoined politicians to speak softly and carry a big stick. Lieberman spoke tough, imbuing his listeners with fear and trembling, but he carried a plastic hammer. Leaving the Defense Ministry is not an option for him. He’ll prefer to stay there even if the government passes a law next week forcing all cabinet ministers to wear a shtreimel and all immigrants from the FSU to eat glatt kosher. Before Netanyahu brought up the issue of the Western Wall prayer area for discussion, along with the new conversion legislation, he first checked everything out with Lieberman.

Naftali Bennett and Sheldon Adelson at the cornerstone-laying for Ariel university's medical school, June 2017.
Moti Milrod

Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, whom we saw this week at Ariel University flirting openly with Netanyahu’s former patron, American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, was happy to join the festivities. Bennett – whose colleague Shaked put the conversion bill to a vote and whose party shares in the sweeping capitulation to the Haredim – spotted an opportunity to differentiate himself from Likud and set in motion a sound-and-light show replete with bombs bursting in air whose tacit message was: Bibi’s a wrecker, I’m a fixer. Thereafter, he launched a marathon round of meetings with leaders of American Jewry. First with the heads of the Jewish Federations, who chanced to be in Israel when the decisions about the Western Wall and conversion were made, and then with the leaders of the AIPAC lobby, who flew to Israel urgently amid the crisis.

Netanyahu, too, met with select representatives of these organizations. In one meeting, he’s reported to have said that any other prime minister would have yielded to the Haredi parties and cancelled irrevocably the compromise plan for the Western Wall. “I didn’t cancel it,” the prime minister of Israel said, “I only froze it.”

One visiting participant in that meeting told an interlocutor that he and his colleagues lowered their eyes in embarrassment. It was a scathing insult to them that this was the level of the argument they were hearing from a national leader. But it was classic Netanyahu: He’ll never admit genuinely that he was wrong or that he gave in, that he folded. He’ll fabricate, twist and turn, fudge and, above all, he’ll always try to persuade you that his predecessors in office would have done worse. So we need to thank him and if possible also give him a bonus. Because it’s coming to him. It’s always coming to him.

Five horsemen of the apocalypse

It’s no easy task for a journalist to try to make the Labor Party primary, set for next Tuesday, come alive for readers. Labor appears to be in its death throes, a brand whose time has passed. Even at such a terrible time for Netanyahu and his Likud, the main opposition party would be unable – according to public opinion surveys – to win back even one of the 12 to 14 seats it has lost to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Why should the Labor leadership race interest anyone who’s not in the heart of that darkness?

The contestants – five principal ones and three others – seem to be fighting for control of the wheel of a sinking ship. On top of which, the July 4 event is only the first round; the contest will only be decided in the second round, a week later. So the drama is of limited scope. Unless everyone is surprised and MK Amir Peretz garners the 40 percent of the votes needed for a first-round win. He claims he can do it. Others are dubious.

The intriguing candidates are the current leader, MK Isaac Herzog, and the new player on the field, Avi Gabbay, who bolted from Kulanu, which he helped found. Herzog is fighting tooth and nail for his position and his honor. He’s the only one of the bunch who’s telling the party the truth: Labor alone isn’t worth more than what the polls predict for it, and if it doesn’t hook up with a bloc of parties whose members will together choose a candidate for prime minister, it won’t be relevant. A vote for Gabbay or Peretz, says Herzog in conversations with activists, will ruin the partnership with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, Labor’s partner in Zionist Union. Livni has already said that in such a scenario, she would leave and dismantle the partnership, which would shake up Labor considerably. In particular, she would have a hard time being No. 2 under Peretz, who in the past was a sort of No. 2 under her.

Herzog, on whose watch the party nose-dived, understands that he can’t just offer more of the same. No one will buy those wares. He has to present a new message. That message is the “bloc.” On the other hand, while the Labor faithful are seeking hope, Herzog is offering them a cloudy future. Because without Yesh Atid, there will be no bloc – and Lapid just isn’t interested.

In all the internal surveys being conducted in Labor, and there are many, Herzog doesn’t come in first or even second. Many people object to him. In the last election he did exceptionally well, with Labor getting 24 seats; at times he seemed to be within spitting distance of the premiership. Now all that has been forgotten. You can’t accumulate credit in politics; only the present exists, in all its gloominess.

Labor leadership candidate Avi Gabbay.
Tomer Appelbaum

Labor MK Yossi Yonah told me this week that in his meetings with voters, he’s hearing mainly that those who vote for Herzog will do so because they will feel bad for him if they don’t.

Yonah supports Gabbay. “Bougie [Herzog’s nickname] is a people person, in the good sense of the term,” Yonah said. “That’s also true of Amir [Peretz]. The hard core, the party veterans, will vote for them. Avi [Gabbay] has no party past, for better or worse. For Gabbay to have a chance to get to the second round, he has to increase the turnout significantly. The new, uncommitted voters have to turn out in masses.”

When Gabbay, who was environmental protection minister on behalf of Kulanu before leaving that party, joined Labor a few months ago, he pulled the rug out from the four MKs in the race: Herzog, Peretz, Erel Margalit and Omer Bar-Lev. He crashed their party and became the star of the event. The support for him reflects a desire to see someone new and untarnished, someone who’s not handicapped by the deficient DNA of a cantankerous, conflicted and crotchety party whose leaders are periodically flung from their seats like squash balls hurled at top speed on the court.

One of Gabbay’s campaign messages is incontestable: Electing him will generate an earthquake in a party that appears about to implode from decay. Even by getting to the second round, he would inject a substantial shot of adrenaline into the last stretch of the race. But then he would have to cope with a burden that his rival can be expected to chain to him: The fact that he’s not a serving MK will prevent him from serving effectively as leader of the opposition for the rest of the current Knesset’s term of office.

Conspiracy theory

This week, a conference marking Cyber Week was held at Tel Aviv University. On Monday, Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, head of the university’s Cyber Research Center, published an article in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth calling on the government to prepare itself for unconventional external cyber intervention that will undermine confidence in the country’s leadership. He cited as an example the U.S. election campaign, in which Russian hackers are thought to have intervened.

The article apparently unnerved one politician. The next day, MK Yair Lapid tweeted, “I suggest establishing a team, to be headed by President Ruvi [Reuven] Rivlin, to prevent cyberattacks in elections. Because of the complexity involved, the team must report and receive guidelines from an objective body.”

The meaning of this is clear: The leader of Yesh Atid, which in the polls is just about neck-and-neck with Likud, is warning against a possible conspiracy in the next election between the individual who has supervisory power over all the cyber bodies, and some other person/state/entity, with the aim of thwarting the democratic process (i.e., robbing Lapid of the premiership).

The warning is seemingly not completely off the wall. What happened in other developed countries could happen in Israel, too. Recent reports in the United States suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a cyberattack in order to assist Donald Trump in his race against Hillary Clinton. Lapid might be thinking: Putin and Netanyahu are pals and have a special relationship. In the next Israeli election, it’s obvious who Putin will favor and support. Thousands of hackers will be unleashed – and God have mercy! Fake information will flood the social networks in order to sway public sentiment against a certain candidate who today offers the only alternative to Netanyahu.

Lapid is putting forward a substantive issue that needs to be taken seriously. What seems odd in his tweet is his recommendation for the person to head the team, whose task will be to prevent the Putins of the world from depriving Lapid of the key to the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

It’s true that Rivlin is the only official personage in the country who’s state-oriented, impartial and not subordinate in any way to the prime minister. But he’s also the president of the state, and in Israel there’s a separation of powers and a governmental structure and all that blah-blah we learned in civics classes. What Lapid is suggesting won’t happen, and he knows it. His real purpose is to raise awareness of an issue that’s likely to gather momentum after a date for the next election is announced.

To Lapid we can apply the well-known dictum: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.