Understandably, the Nov. 21 indictment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a confusing and emotional moment for American Jews.
Thursday was a “difficult and sad day” for Israelis, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said when announcing the indictment. Netanyahu is the first sitting prime minister in Israel’s history to face such a predicament.
Netanyahu stands charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud in multiple cases, the most serious one involving an attempt to trade positive media coverage for regulatory favors.
Netanyahu calls the charges “an attempted coup” and “a witch hunt.” In many respects, his defiant stance and refusal to step aside is also unprecedented.
The confusion, uncertainty and anxiety of Israel’s ongoing political stalemate adds to the pain and discomfort. Not since the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has Israel seemed so imperiled from within, and it is natural for Diaspora Jewry to feel anxious when the leader of the one and only Jewish state faces such grave charges.
From Hero to Divisive Figure
Our sorrow is also wrapped in a unique and bitter disappointment in a figure who emerged four decades ago as a living embodiment of a heroic Israel.
American Jews lionized Netanyahu, whom they first met through the triumph of Entebbe, which came with the sting of his brother Yoni’s death. Through the 1980s, largely as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Netanyahu became one of the most recognizable Israeli figures for American Jewry, giving countless interviews and inspiring speeches that brought goosebumps and a wellspring of pride to an entire generation.
Although that uniform sense of awe and admiration has long since faded, and his leadership turned divisive, the starkness and severity of the attorney general’s indictment will seem like a personal betrayal to anyone who felt Netanyahu’s enchantments over the years.
Because it comes at a time when a variety of forces — illiberalism, media platforms that undermine transparency and civil discourse, increasingly polarized politics that fuel nativism and extreme nationalism, to name a few — also seem to be bearing down on Israeli and Western democratic institutions.
One bright spot in all of this is that Israel’s legal institutions have been proven resilient, something Israelis and American Jews can be proud of. More broadly, Israel’s core democratic institutions, although stressed, remain strong and robust. Democratic and liberal norms and practices —voter turnout, contestation, a free press or opposition politics — remain healthy.
Although back-to-back elections have led to a political stalemate, much of this can be blamed on Netanyahu’s legal troubles and his unwillingness to step aside rather than a democracy deficit.
Israel is also fortunate in that the national security community remains a reliable and staunch bulwark of democratic life. It’s no surprise that security figures make up a disproportionate number of Netanyahu’s rivals outside of Likud, or that so many national security figures have opposed proposals to limit judicial oversight.
In many respects, the long-expected indictment itself reflects an inner strength worthy of admiration by outsiders, especially Diaspora communities who see themselves as non-voting shareholders in the Zionist enterprise — and who view the preservation of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character as inseparable.
At the same time, American Jewry should be on guard against opportunism. Take for example the immediate reaction of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a presidential candidate who conflates Netanyahu’s case with America’s own strained politics. She charged that the Israeli prime minister would “stop at nothing to enrich himself and stay in power.” Warren pledged to fight “this blatant corruption … at home and abroad,” thereby weaponizing Israel’s political travails.
The interests of American Jewry, now facing resurgent right-wing white nationalism and feeling deeply exposed following the anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, are not served when politicians here use political troubles in Israel to score points.
Just the same, Jewish communal interests are not served by repeated interventions by Israeli representatives into our domestic politics, as Israeli U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon did recently with his harsh criticisms of another American presidential candidate.
In the uncertain days ahead, Jewish community leaders should be on guard to fend off and counter actions and statements that further expose American Jewry to the dangers stemming from increasing polarization and partisanship, which is slowly chipping away at the bedrock of bipartisanship that American Jewry has long nurtured and is fundamental to the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Netanyahu’s indictment and the broader political challenges faced by Israelis should also lead Jewish community leaders to ask what more can be done collectively to insulate and protect Israeli democracy over the long haul.
Advocacy at home, together with a strong tradition of philanthropy, may not be enough to address the myriad challenges Israel and the Jewish people face in the 21st century. Given the recent consolidation of world Jewry within the strongest democracies, most notably the United States, there should be less hesitation about confronting threats — including internal ones — that challenge the state’s Jewish and democratic character.
Whether it be the specter of West Bank annexation or American Jewry’s failed attempt last year to oppose the “nation-state” law, we have the capacity to do more.
Diaspora interventions were largely taboo in earlier eras when the Jewish world was caught between East and West, and when Jewish insecurity — in Israel or the former Soviet Union — was the paramount concern.
But Netanyahu’s indictment, as painful as it is to watch, could also be a wake-up call for American Jewry to place confronting illiberalism and bolstering democratic institutions at the top of our agenda.
Dr. Scott B. Lasensky is a visiting assistant professor of Israel and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. A former senior advisor in the Obama administration, he is the co-author of “The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace” (Cornell University Press). He lives in Silver Spring.
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