Benjamin Netanyahu reforms trigger backlash in US from ardent Israel supporters

Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to overhaul Israel’s judicial system has triggered a backlash among some of the country’s most ardent supporters in the US, straining support that has been at the core of its security strategy for decades.

The recent criticism is remarkable in that it is coming from a politically diverse group of American Jews that has for the most part been steadfast in its defence of Israel, even as the country faced mounting condemnation of its treatment of Palestinians. What has shaken the Jewish community in the US so much this time round is the sense that Netanyahu is trying to undermine Israel’s democratic institutions.

“We love Israel but we’re not going to watch as Israel’s democratic foundations are weakened, if not undermined,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who described recent events as a “key inflection point”.

He added: “We can’t imagine a Jewish state that isn’t democratic and yet there are people who can.”

Netanyahu has bolstered his leadership credentials in Israel by touting his sophisticated understanding of US political dynamics, frequently suggesting his rivals at home might mishandle relations with Washington at a time when polls show many Israelis have security issues upmost on their minds.

But critics of Netanyahu argue he planted the seeds of the recent break with American Jews by overtly inserting himself into an increasingly polarised US political scene, first by showing open contempt for then-president Barack Obama and then by enthusiastically embracing his successor, Donald Trump.

Among the high-profile defenders of Israel who have spoken out recently is former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said Israel’s government was “courting disaster”. Miriam Adelson, wife of the late American casino magnate and a mega Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, said Netanyahu’s hasty rush to enact changes was “naturally suspect” and that “bad motivations never bring good outcomes”.

Zeke Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania — and a prominent Jewish American whose brother is Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan — said he sees eroding support for Israel within his own family.

“A lot of American Jews don’t identify with this regime . . . and I think that’s a real problem,” said Emanuel, who joined the protests over the weekend while visiting Israel.

Emanuel, a former government health official, added: “I look at my daughters, my nieces and my nephews. Unlike me, we were clamouring to come to Israel, we felt free in Israel, they don’t. They’re not clamouring to come, they’re not taking their children, they don’t see it as essential.”

David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration who is close to Netanyahu, described the past few days and weeks as “one of the hardest things I’ve had to watch”.

“We see the whole of Israel as a miracle and as something that is at the core of our Jewishness, and watching that social fabric disintegrate was more painful than if Israel were attacked by an enemy from the outside,” Friedman said. He supports some of the changes but said the process to implement them was “botched”.

Benjamin Netanyahu meets  Barack Obama in New York in 2016
Benjamin Netanyahu meets Barack Obama in New York in 2016 © Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Four top American Jewish organisations have also weighed in. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Federations of North America, issued a statement this week calling the last three months “painful” and urging Israel’s parliament to build consensus in the months ahead.

This week, Israel’s prime minister announced he would suspend the reforms following widespread protests in the country, saying he wanted “to avoid civil war through dialogue”.

But many of the concerns remain. Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism said: “I was relieved, but not entirely. There was a commitment to delay but not a commitment to discard.”

The crisis peaked after Netanyahu fired his defence minister, bringing tens of thousands of Israelis on to the streets as the country temporarily shut down amid mass strikes. But tensions with American Jews had already been mounting.

When Netanyahu returned to power late last year, he formed what is arguably the most rightwing government in the country’s history, including ministers from far right and ultra-Orthodox parties. This further hurt ties with American Jews who largely identify as liberal and vote Democratic.

Adding to the schisms were provocative statements by government ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich, a minister in the defence ministry who said Israel should “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara. More than 120 Jewish leaders signed a letter opposing his planned visit to the US. That visit went ahead, but he was shunned by major Jewish groups.

“A majority of the American Jewish community has deep reservations about Netanyahu’s politics,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The American Jewish community tends to skew left and the Israeli Jewish polity is moving right.”

In Congress, there has been some bipartisan pressure on Netanyahu to back off. Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, joined Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, in a statement this week that welcomed the postponement of the reforms.

“Shared democratic values have long underpinned the US-Israel relationship, and we hope this delay provides an opportunity to work towards a compromise,” said the senators, who are both on the foreign relations committee.

Joe Biden’s administration has tried to tread a fine line on the crisis, issuing guarded comments of concern, urging compromise, and underscoring the importance of Israel’s commitment to democracy. However, on Tuesday, the president appeared to go one step further. Asked what he wanted Netanyahu to do regarding the reforms, he replied: “I hope he walks away from it.”

Behind the scenes, the administration has waged an intense campaign to try to convince Netanyahu to pull back. But US officials have made clear that billions of dollars in annual military assistance to Israel is not in jeopardy.

Brad Schneider, a Democratic member of Congress from an Illinois district north of Chicago and a strong supporter of Israel, welcomed the pause given that many of his constituents are worried about the reforms.

“I think Americans from the left and the right look to Israel as a key ally and strategic partner and as a democracy, where the rights of the minorities and separation of powers [are protected],” he said.

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