Opinion: After Charlottesville, Netanyahu’s hard choice

The racist Charlottesville rally may prove to be a seminal moment not just for the Trump administration, but also for determining Netanyahu’s legacy as a champion of Jewish rights.

By: Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS.org

During the eight years when he was saddled with President Barack Obama as his counterpart in Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was bitterly criticized from the left by those who believed he was endangering Israel’s vital alliance with the U.S. They warned that his public confrontations with the 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, they are singing a different tune.

The same people who spent eight years slamming Netanyahu’s willingness to publicly take on a U.S. president are now loudly lamenting his refusal to do just that. Netanyahu was slow to respond to an anti-Semitic and racist march in Charlottesville, Va. His refusal to issue any statement that could be interpreted as a criticism of President Donald Trump is being blasted as a betrayal of Jewish values and his country’s best interests.

Are his critics hypocrites? Of course they are.

Are they wrong? Not entirely.

What they are demanding might create a dangerous breach with a president who has seemed to have Israel’s back on the conflicts with both the Palestinians and Iran. But such a course of action would also be in accord with Netanyahu’s own definition of his responsibility to be not just the head of Israel’s government, but also a defender of the interests of all Jews.

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Dealing with Obama vs. Trump

Obama came into office determined to achieve more “daylight” between the two allies and ginned up disputes with the Israelis every chance he got. As his 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’s 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 unflinching support for Netanyahu’s positions. So it is hardly surprising that the prime minister has sought to avoid trouble with Trump. When American Jewish liberals were lobbing largely unjustified accusations of anti-Semitism at the president, Netanyahu stood by his friend in the White House.

Even after Charlottesville, that remains the position of many on the Israeli right and die-hard Trump loyalists in the U.S., who treat controversy as “fake news.” Many among the prime minister’s supporters probably also agree with Communications Minister Ayoub Kara when he said that the “terrific relations” with Trump mean “we need to put declarations about the Nazis in proper proportion.” The same explanation accounts for the government’s attitude toward European governments that are friendly to Israel but perceived as soft on anti-Semitism.

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‘No Eternal Allies…No Perpetual Enemies’

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 by speaking of his obligation to defend the interests of all of the Jewish people, to now lose his voice with respect to anti-Semitism.

Far from being concerned with the future of the alliance, Netanyahu’s critics are hoping a spat with the hypersensitive Trump will lead the billionaire to turn on Israel’s government to gain revenge for any statement that he would consider a betrayal. They want Trump to put brutal pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and don’t care why he does it. Nor do many seriously believe that any of the possible alternatives to Netanyahu would have the chutzpah to challenge Trump. But critics are correct to note that Netanyahu going quiet about presidential statements that were rightly assailed for asserting a degree of moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents was problematic.

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Left-wing anti-Semites and Israel-haters currently pose a more potent threat to Jewish interests than a ragtag coalition of Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and alt-right malcontents. But in the wake of Charlottesville, it’s no longer possible for the Jewish right in either Israel or the U.S. to ignore the threat coming from these groups, now that they’ve received some encouragement from a sitting 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 the fight against anti-Semitism. 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.