Will Netanyahu Stand Up to Trump on Charlottesville?
JNS.org – During the eight years that he was saddled with President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was bitterly criticized from the left by those who believed that he was endangering Israel’s vital alliance with the US.
Netanyahu’s critics warned that his public confrontations with the US president were both inappropriate, and had the potential to turn support for the Jewish state into a partisan issue — since some Democrats interpreted these disputes as a reason to accelerate their drift away from the pro-Israel camp.
Today, however, the same people who spent eight years slamming Netanyahu’s willingness to publicly take on a US president are now loudly lamenting his refusal to do just that.
Netanyahu was slow to respond to the antisemitic and racist march in Charlottesville, Virginia — and Netanyahu’s refusal to issue any statement that could be interpreted as criticizing Donald Trump is being blasted as a betrayal of Jewish values and his country’s best interests.
Are his critics hypocrites? Of course.
Are they wrong? Not entirely.
What these people are demanding might create a dangerous breach with a US president who has seemed to support Israel in its conflicts with both the Palestinians and Iran.
But a refusal to speak out against the US president would also conflict with Netanyahu’s own definition of his responsibility, which is to be not just the head of Israel’s government, but also a defender of the interests of all Jews.
Obama came into office determined to achieve more “daylight” between Israel and the US. And as Obama’s quest for a rapprochement with Iran took shape, the hostility between the two leaders reached unprecedented levels.
Netanyahu’s decision to accept a Republican invitation to address Congress to urge it to reject the Iran nuclear deal enraged Obama and the Democratic Party. Though most Israelis agreed with Netanyahu’s arguments, many worried that he went too far in opposing Obama, and provided an excuse for those Democrats who wished to abandon Israel.
Trump’s election provided a welcome change. The Palestinians were frustrated by what they saw as strong support for Netanyahu’s positions. So it is hardly surprising that Netanyahu has sought to avoid trouble with Trump. When American Jewish liberals were lobbing largely unjustified accusations of antisemitism at the president, Netanyahu stood by Trump.
Even after Charlottesville, that decision to avoid criticizing Trump remains the position of many on the Israeli right and diehard Trump loyalists. Many among the prime minister’s supporters probably also agreed with Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara when he said that the “terrific relations” with Trump mean “we need to put declarations about the Nazis in proper proportion.”
As Lord Palmerston said, nations “have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” That aphorism can be used to justify embracing some strange bedfellows in the defense of Israeli security. But the problem for Netanyahu is that it ill behooves a prime minister who based his challenge to Obama on the need to defend the interests of all of the Jewish people, to now lose his voice with respect to antisemitism.
I believe that some on the Israeli left want to instigate a spat between Netanyahu and Trump, partly because they want Trump to put pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. In my view, they also don’t expect that any of the possible alternatives to Netanyahu would have the guts to challenge Trump. But critics are correct to note that Netanyahu staying silent after Trump displayed a degree of moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents is problematic.
In my view, left-wing antisemites and Israel haters currently pose a more potent threat to Jewish interests than the Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and alt-right malcontents that marched in Charlottesville. But in the wake of Charlottesville, it’s no longer possible for the Jewish right — in either Israel or the US — to ignore the threat coming from these groups, now that they’ve received some encouragement from a sitting US president.
Netanyahu’s failure to speak up may have been appreciated by Trump, but it also did great harm to Israel’s already shaky standing with an American Jewish community that was rightly outraged by Trump’s various statements.
Far from being a minor kerfuffle, Charlottesville may prove to be a seminal moment for the Trump administration — as well as for the fight against antisemitism. If Netanyahu speaks forcefully about it, he may be taking a risk, but not doing so will damage his legacy as a lifelong champion of Jewish rights.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin. This column was originally published by Israel Hayom.