Opinion |

U.S. Jews Are Clear: We Won’t Back Bibi’s Conspiracies, Colonial Inclinations or Corruption

We believe in a Jewish and democratic Israel. We feel no obligation to defend Netanyahu’s pathological viciousness, monumentally stupid annexation, incitement and self-enrichment

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, looks on while standing inside the court room as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask, looks on while standing inside the court room as his corruption trial opens at the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

July 1 has come and gone, and Bibi has not annexed anything — yet. Thank God.

But American Jews are not happy. The monumental stupidity of the entire annexation enterprise has left them shocked and panicked, not to mentioned puzzled and confused. And above all angry.

Still, the utter foolishness of annexation combined with the furious reaction of American Jews has produced some more-or-less positive results.

First, the bad news.

As countless commentators have pointed out, what Bibi is doing may make sense for him personally but makes no sense whatsoever for the Jewish state.

If annexation comes—and most American Jews think that it still might, in some form or another—the result will be an anti-Israel tsunami on the diplomatic front, an erosion of America’s long-term support for Israel, a mortal blow to pro-Israel advocacy on campus, a major setback to Israel’s warming ties with the Sunni states, a likely crisis with Jordan, serious danger of renewed violence in the territories, incentive for Iranian surrogates in Syria to make trouble for Israel, and on, and on, and on.

The precise degree of turmoil that will be generated is impossible to predict. But at a time of relative quiet when the Trump administration is otherwise occupied with its own reelection prospects, the possibilities of chaos and disaster far outweigh any supposed benefits of annexing land.

So why, American Jews are asking, has Bibi been pushing the annexation button?

One theory, of course, is that an older, more mature Bibi, in the twilight of his career, wants to secure his legacy as the leader who set Israel’s eastern border at the Jordan river — an invaluable contribution, some argue, even if this means pulling down the entire structure of Middle East diplomacy on his head.


Protesters from the ‘Women Wage Peace’ grassroots movement outside a government office compound in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 18, 2020. The placard reads in Hebrew: ‘[Women] Stopping Annexation’Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

But Bibi’s failure to annex over the last decade, or even to consider it seriously, makes such an explanation wildly unlikely. We are asked to believe that he is now obsessed with a legacy that he barely mentioned it to anyone until approaching his 70th birthday.

The other theory is that annexation began as an election tactic that unexpectedly took hold, and then morphed into a useful distraction that might convince the judges in his upcoming criminal trial to delay the proceedings against him.

Cynical? Unpatriotic? A profound affront to Israel’s citizens and soldiers? An insult to Zionism and to Jews everywhere?

Yes, all of the above. And in fact, such a motive is so outrageously self-serving for a prime minister that under normal circumstances it would be dismissed even by Bibi’s critics.

Yet consider the following. On Sunday, May 24, 2020 the Prime Minister’s trial on bribery and other charges began. Netanyahu gave a speech immediately prior to the trial’s opening, standing outside the courthouse.

Most American Jews have not read or seen that speech, but we all should do so. Those who have will never forget it.

It was an extraordinary speech, pathologically vicious, and unlike any ever given by a premier in Israel’s history.

The speech attacked Israel’s Attorney General, attacked the State Prosecutor, attacked the police, attacked the judiciary, and attacked the media. It described an evil, anti-patriotic plot, carried out by forces of the left, to destroy the prime minister and his government of the right. It described a nefarious conspiracy to overturn the results of the recent election. It presented Israel as an ugly, failed country, which barely qualifies as a banana republic.

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on the first day of his corruption trial, May 24, 2020.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

Any American leader, Jewish or non-Jewish, who spoke of Israel in such terms would be condemned immediately as an Israel-hater and an antisemite, and rightly so. It was a Trump-like speech but more articulate, sophisticated, and dangerous, clearly out-Trumping Trump. Is the man capable of giving such a speech about the country that he leads also capable of promoting annexation for primarily personal reasons? And the answer is yes.

Now the not-so-terrible news.

First, the annexation fiasco has shown Bibi, his party, and much of his coalition to be, yet again, the incompetent bumblers that they have always been. What has been true in areas of vital importance such as health, education, and transportation turns out to be no less true when it comes to Bibi’s dangerous scheming on annexation.

Netanyahu announced his annexation intentions with great fanfare, but then — thank goodness — demonstrated that he was unprepared politically, militarily, logistically and in every other way to carry out his grandiose plans. The Bibi cult, which has been so effective for the prime minister as an instrument of incitement and self-enrichment, turns out to be incapable of putting one foot in front of the other when it comes to actually getting things done.

Secondly, the ominous implications of annexation generated an extraordinary backlash in America among many of Israel’s most reliable and devoted friends. Leading American politicians with impeccable pro-Israel credentials found their voice and said to Netanyahu: Stop. There are limits to what America will tolerate.

The turning point was the statement issued by Senators Chuck Schumer, Ben Cardin, and Robert Menendez opposing unilateral annexation. Their words had a partisan angle, of course; in a deeply polarized Washington, there is no escaping politics.

But not a single pro-Israel leader in America would dare to suggest that Schumer, Cardin, or Menendez would ever truly compromise Israel’s security for partisan gain. All three have repeatedly spoken up for Israel, taken risks for Israel, and fought the tough battles on Israel’s behalf. When the three of them said that annexation was wrong and would undermine regional stability and U.S. interests in the Middle East, American Jews took notice — and so did all other friends of Israel in the Congress and the political world.

Protesters gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to denounce Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, June 23, 2020.Credit: AFP

Third, American Jews did a reasonably good job of coming together to oppose annexation. The Reform movement did good work here, as did J Street. But the Israel Policy Forum, a relatively new major player on the block, took the lead, offering a centrist voice that regularly eviscerated the arguments offered by Israeli diplomats and right-wing American Jewish groups.

Michael Koplow, the IPF’s policy director, dismantled the mendacious claims of Ambassador Ron Dermer, who wrote in the Washington Post that Bibi favored annexation because it was a step that would lead to a two-state solution. But this was, as Koplow put it, "rank dishonesty," turning Israel’s case for annexation on its head.

Citing chapter and verse, Koplow made clear what too many in the Jewish establishment had avoided saying — namely, that Bibi has emphatically opposed a Palestinian state for most of the last decade and sees annexation primarily as a step to more annexation, not as a road to a two-state vision.

In a community that has often catered to Dermer’s tall tales and looked the other way as he played the role of ambassador to the Republicans, Koplow again and again did American Jews the great favor of telling the truth about annexation in simple, straightforward language.

In fact, it seems to me that in many ways the battle against annexation has energized American Jews, precisely because it has helped to define and clarify the issues.

The issues are hardly new, of course. American Jews want what Israel’s founders demanded and what Zionism has always offered: a Jewish and democratic Israel. And despite the clumsy efforts by Bibi and his underlings to confuse, distort, and obscure, this is exactly what the annexation debate is about.

And that is why, despite claims that support for Israel is collapsing, 80 percent of American Jews define themselves as pro-Israel, even as a majority (57 percent) remain critical of Israeli policy.

They are pro-Israel because they believe in a Jewish and democratic Israel, and believe that to support such a state, no sacrifice is too great. But, at the same time, they feel no obligation to defend the bankrupt policies, colonial inclinations, and personal corruption that Bibi represents.

The annexation debate is far from over, of course. It may be only in its early stages. But American Jews, and American leaders, are showing some signs that they are ready for the fight.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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