Israel Pulse

Between Trump and US Jewry, Netanyahu picks Trump

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Article Summary
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump can insult US Jewry as much as he wants, as long as the president keeps supporting Netanyahu in his campaign for the premiership.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have been resoundingly silent since President Donald Trump tarred millions of American Jews with the anti-Semitic trope of disloyalty to their homeland Aug. 20. While Jewish and non-Jewish members of Congress lashed out at the president and Jewish organizations of all stripes demanded that he retract his remarks, Twitter master Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept mum. Similarly, Yamina (Rightward) coalition senior officials Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich, who rave against any foreign leader who dares to criticize Jews and questions their right to the entire Land of Israel, have swallowed their tongues. And on the political center-left, the last time Blue and White Chair Benny Gantz mentioned Trump was to extol him for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on March 21. Neither former Prime Minister Ehud Barak nor Nitzan Horwitz, leaders of the left-wing Democratic Camp, have stood up to defend their brothers across the sea, either.

It fell to President Reuven Rivlin once again to save what little is left of the Jewish State’s dignity. With admirable diplomatic caution, Rivlin told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “The relationship between the State of Israel and the United States is a link between peoples, which relies on historical ties, deep and strong friendships and shared values that are not dependent on the relationship with one particular party.” Not a word about the most egregious remarks ever made by an American president against the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora.

It is easy to imagine how long it would have taken Netanyahu to bang out a vicious tweet against former President Barack Hussein Obama had Obama hinted that American Jews who vote Republican are disloyal to their country. “Who is Obama? Obama is history,” Culture Minister Miri Regev said a month after Trump’s 2016 election to office, reacting to Obama’s criticism of Israeli settlement policy. “We have Trump,” said Regev, whose comments generally reflect the unadulterated, unfiltered views of the prime minister. Indeed, it can be said that “we,” meaning the Israeli political right led by Netanyahu, “have Trump.” He honored them with a presidential visit to Israel, transferred the US Embassy to Jerusalem, pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, placed the peace process with the Palestinians in a coma and turned Netanyahu into one of the White House family.

Netanyahu has reciprocated for Trump’s benevolence with heaped servings of flattery. He never misses an opportunity to praise the president, whom he calls “a true friend” of Israel, suggesting that his predecessors were not. Netanyahu honored Trump by naming a Golan Heights community after him, and ignored the president’s troubling reaction to the October 2018 massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue, which angered the Jewish community. The cherry on the cake was Netanyahu’s decision to ban the visit of two Democratic congresswomen (Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota) prompted by a single White House tweet.

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While many Americans regard their president as a highly controversial figure, and most Jews view him as a disastrous political accident, Netanyahu has turned Trump into the presenter of the Likud party’s election propaganda. A giant photo of the two men covers one side of Metzudat Ze’ev, Likud’s headquarters in Tel Aviv. Once the US presidential campaign gets going, Trump will hand Netanyahu the bill. Trump is not a fan of free lunches. What good is a sign on the Golan at the entrance to a godforsaken village the size of one of his hotels if the Jews of America do not provide Trump with the electoral goods?

The representative of Trump’s party in Israel thinks the president’s comment was correct. “We have been saying for some time now that American Jewry's continued support of the Democratic Party in an unfathomable departure from the traditional bipartisan consensus on Israel and the Jewish people in favor of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] and anti-Semitism is sad, silly and self-defeating,” Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, told Al-Monitor. “The president observed that in doing so American Jews were being disloyal to their own interests as Jews. And he was right.”

While hosting a May 2017 dinner in Jerusalem for the president and the first lady, and before waxing poetic about the beauty of Melania Trump and Sara Netanyahu, Netanyahu described Jerusalem as “the eternal capital of the Jewish people” as well as “the united capital of the State of Israel.” What was Trump to understand from this remark? Obviously, that the man standing beside him was not only the prime minister of Israel but also the leader of the Jewish people. If that is the case, why was Netanyahu not making sure that American Jews vote for his friend? Either Netanyahu is not as true a friend as Trump, or there is something wrong with the Jews’ loyalty gene. As Democratic Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen compared Trump's remarks "about "disloyal" Jewish Americans to something that would be said in fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. "It’s something that you hear really from Mussolini or something from Germany in the ‘30s that you have to be a member of their party, and if you're not a member of their party, then you're disloyal to your country."

The right-wing politicians hiding behind their silence may stem from their fear of being exposed for what they really are. Pretending to defend US Jews against anti-Semitic-like statements would have seemed odd, to say the least, when looking back at some of the more memorable tropes these politicians have directed over the years at Israeli leftists and Arabs. There was “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish” (Netanyahu whispering loudly to Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri in 1997), “the Arabs are heading in droves to the polling stations … right-wing rule is under threat” (Netanyahu’s 2015 Election Day video) or “No loyalty, no citizenship” (the doctrine of Yisrael Beitenu party leader Avigdor Liberman).

“Today there is no doubt that we are living in an age of resurgent anti-Semitism. Jews everywhere are once again being slandered and vilified,” Netanyahu told participants of the May 2015 Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism. “This is taking place in the intolerant parts of the Middle East but it's also taking place in what otherwise would be expected to be the tolerant parts of the West. … Jews are now being targeted for being Jews.” Netanyahu went on to say, “A lot of the extreme anti-Semitism that we see today is coming from old quarters, intolerant quarters, xenophobic ones in parts of Europe.” These days, one should add “the intolerant and xenophobic quarters within the US administration.”

Netanyahu ended his speech with an impassioned plea for the world “to continue to stand up and fight anti-Semitism.” Paraphrasing a saying that has been attributed the ancient Jewish sage Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, one could well say of Netanyahu that he does not practice what he preaches.

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Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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