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Netanyahu Critics in Israel Feel the Pain of anti-Trump Americans Outraged by Kavanaugh Confirmation

But while the Israeli left has grown dispirited and despondent, U.S. liberals are all fired up and raring to vote

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Protesters occupy the Senate Hart building during a rally against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on October 4, 2018
Protesters occupy the Senate Hart building during a rally against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on October 4, 2018Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

On Friday evening, at the very same time that Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democrat Joe Manchin were crushing the last hopes that Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court might be blocked, Israel’s Channel 2’s weekly news show screened a report about the detention, interrogation and sometimes expulsion of visitors whose activities – and views, apparently – are deemed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to be “dangerous." It was a classic case of what Carl Jung called “synchronicity”: events that have no causal connection to each other but are nonetheless related in a meaningful way.

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Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, September 27, 2018Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP

The report by Channel 2’s well-regarded Yigal Mosko, focused on visitors to Israel who had been detained and questioned at Ben Gurion Airport but, unlike at least 20 others, were ultimately allowed to enter the country. These included the vice president of the New Israel Fund and former San Francisco Jewish Federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz, anti-occupation activist Simone Zimmerman and Atlantic correspondent, CNN commentator and my former Haaretz colleague Peter Beinart.

There was nothing new in the report – at least not for readers of Haaretz – but it was gut-wrenching nonetheless. Citing “security interests” and acting under authority of the 2017 law that bars visitors who have “publicly called” for a boycott of Israel “and any area under its control,” the government, through the Border Police and the Shin Bet, is targeting, isolating and branding as potential accomplices to terror people of a certain leftist political persuasion, including supporters of Israel who oppose the occupation. Their quarry, based on empirical evidence, includes not only Jewish and non-Jewish tourists and visitors but also Jews seeking entry via the Law of Return and, most ominously, Israeli citizens.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, walks off the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, October 5, 2018Credit: Bloomberg

The detentions at Ben Gurion airport may be damaging Israel’s reputation among liberals, which it increasingly ignores anyway, but they have a hidden bonus: The political filtering at Israel’s gate sends a chilling message, which delegitimizes opposition to the government’s policies inside Israel itself. Moreover, at the speed that they are plummeting down the proverbial slippery slope, it may be just a matter of time before Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra-right wing coalition partners convince themselves – and their followers – that the same rationale that justifies detaining suspected subversives who haven’t entered the country is doubly valid for those already living in it.

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Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, speaks to members of the media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, October 5, 2018Credit: Bloomberg

After all, the task of protecting Israel from harm doesn’t stop at the country’s gates. If ascertaining ties not only to BDS groups, but to George Soros, the New Israel Fund, Israeli civil society dissenters such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence and other groups protesting Israeli policies in the occupied territories makes Israel safer - why stop there? Why shouldn’t resident Israelis deemed suspect by some mid-level Shin Bet operative also be subjected to random detention and interrogation about their political views, support for Netanyahu and nefarious activities against the occupation, like some of those detained at the airport? Is that not the next logical step?

I am sure that many viewers of the Channel 2 news report – though possibly just a minority – felt a deep sense of shame, mixed with despair, laced with dread. For leftist and liberal Israelis, for all those who have yet to be swept off their feet by the ugly tide of Jewish ultra-nationalism and general incitement against the left propagated by Netanyahu and his cohorts, the thought of where we’ve come from, where we are now and where we seem to be going is nothing less than devastating.

Protesters opposed to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh hold "Kava Nope" signs while marching toward the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, October 4, 2018Credit: Bloomberg

Which is why, despite the fact that Israel’s detention policies and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh are completely unconnected and oceans apart, Netanyahu’s critics in Israel and Trump’s opponents in the U.S. formed a unique bond over the weekend, albeit one that neither side is aware of. The Israeli left, and a chunk of its center, have been living for many years with the same kind of indignation and outrage that many Americans must have felt when Collins and Manchin gave the GOP the votes needed to get Kavanaugh confirmed, despite Christine Blasey Ford’s un-refuted allegations that Kavanaugh tried to rape her in high school.

Liberal Israelis can easily empathize with their American counterparts’ disgust, dismay and disillusionment with politicians who prefer expediency to principle, a legislature that willingly surrenders its supervisory role and becomes a rubber stamp, a Supreme Court that is getting packed and bent out of shape with right wing appointments, a public that seems oblivious to the erosion of its democracy, the rights of minorities or the status of women and a leader who ignores established norms and constantly and dangerously incites against the media, the elites and his political rivals. They too have watched with anguish as conspiracy theories gradually vanquish facts and as a cult of personality eclipses ideology and renders leaders immune to charges of violating the law and the constitution. Israelis, perhaps more than any other people on earth, can feel the liberal American pain. They live with the fear that worse is yet to come.

The big difference is that most Americans who oppose Trump are still astonished that he was elected in the first place and are still in shock that his tenure so far is a bigger nightmare than they could have ever imagined. They still can’t believe – or grasp – that their fellow citizens would allow their country to come to this. Israelis, on the other hand, have lived under Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule for the almost nine straight years, including the last four, in which he has shed past pretenses and seems hell-bent on undermining the legitimacy of dissent and on entrenching right-wing hegemony for many years to come. Israelis have had ample time to digest that their leader wields his unchecked power over the public and its representatives in the Knesset by relying on the fanaticism and threatening intimidation of his ethnocentric, foreigner-hating, democracy-disdaining so-called “base.”

This is why Israeli leftists react today with sad resignation to the kind of developments and trends that make American liberals’ blood boil. They have ridden the roller coaster of dashed hopes and smashed expectations so often that their determination has been replaced by despondence and their fighting spirit supplanted by dejection and sorrow. They no longer harbor hopes that new elections, which are expected to be called soon, can yield anything other than another resounding Netanyahu victory, a renewed mandate for his authoritarian-minded coalition and a reinvigorated drive to stifle leftist criticism and activism, which could make the detention of suspects at Ben Gurion Airport seem like child’s play.

American Democrats and liberals, on the other hand, are all fired up and raring to go. Trump’s election as president, despite his loss of the popular vote, along with his unresolved reliance on Russia, disdain for America’s allies, perverse romance with Kim Jong Un, abandonment of America’s traditional role as the world’s policeman and moral preacher, outrageous invective, perceived corruption, more than 5,000 lies and falsehoods documented by the Washington Post and general infatuation with himself have infuriated and inflamed his critics and opponents. The Kavanaugh debacle has confirmed their worst apprehensions, but may also prove to be the final catalyst that sends Democrats and other Never-Trumpers to the polls on November 6 “in droves,” as Netanyahu said of Israeli Arabs in 2015.

This is why the impending vote for Congress is so pivotal, and not only for the future of the Democratic Party and arguably for American democracy itself. Unlike most previous midterm elections, which used to garner mostly yawns in the international arena, this time the whole world is watching. A Republican upset would signal that America is with Trump, but a Democrat victory - in the House of Representatives, at the very least - would spark hope that the march of Trumpism has been arrested and that its traumas might soon be a thing of the past. A Democratic triumph, especially one that is sweeping and unequivocal, could even inject renewed fighting spirit into otherwise dejected Israelis, who have all but given up hope.

Israeli history, however, provides a note of caution. Netanyahu’s Israeli critics have experienced the same kind of determined enthusiasm that seems to be enveloping Trump’s opponents. That was in May 1999, when peace-loving, democracy-cherishing Israeli voters emphatically rejected Netanyahu after his first term in office and replaced him with Ehud Barak. Their celebrations, however, were short-lived. Twenty years later, given Netanyahu’s triumphant return and seemingly permanent lock on power, they seem naive and shortsighted.

The lesson for their American brothers and sisters in arms is that a battle won does not preclude a war that’s ultimately lost. That perception could change if liberal America proves, after its expected November 6 gains, that it is persevering despite inevitable setbacks and disappointments. Israeli spirits might be lifted, in sublime synchronicity, if American liberals prove true to Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones stirring and defiant response on September 23, 1779, when asked by the captain of the British vessel pursuing his ship, The Bonhomme Richard, whether he wished to surrender: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

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