Netanyahu’s Woes: A Tale of Two Cities, London and Jerusalem

“We made a mistake in navigation,” admitted a chastened Amihai Chikli, the Israeli Minister for Diaspora Affairs — and called for a halt to the so-called “judicial reforms”. In the wake of airport closures, walkouts at universities, port stoppages, embassies and consulates shuttered until further notice, bank closures, a looming shut-down of the hi-tech industry and the Histadrut willing to call out all workers, it was a general strike in all but name.

Even Netanyahu’s lawyer threatened to go — torn between defending his client and defending his profession.

Such pressure led to Netanyahu’s announcement on Monday night to temporarily freeze the so-called judicial overhaul. This was the price paid to allow Itamar Ben-Gvir to form a National Guard under his control which many fear may morph into a private army.

The counter-demonstrations organised by the far Right beforehand allowed Netanyahu to position himself as an apostle of reasonableness and arbiter of peace between the two sides. He even evoked the judgement of Solomon to underpin his decision. The dam had burst when Netanyahu’s colleagues in the Likud inevitably began to utter sotto voce beliefs that the process to repress the judges should be stopped. The counter-productive dismissal of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant literally set Likud’s house on fire.

Israelis spontaneously came out of their homes to protest because they perceived that Netanyahu had placed his political future before the protection of the nation and their loved ones due to a depressed IDF in disarray.

Following Gallant’s sacking, demonstrators in London gathered outside the home of the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely — a Netanyahu appointee. Unlike other diplomats she did not resign.

This unprecedented demonstration simply continued the series of protests that had beset Netanyahu during his short visit to London.

Last Friday, hundreds of Israelis stood on the pavement outside Downing Street in London. Amidst the hordes of photographers and journalists, they shouted “Busha, busha” (shame, shame) — a cry which easily carried to Benjamin Netanyahu’s ears as he walked towards Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s door. They made a point of wrapping themselves in a sea of Israeli flags — no-one could call them self-hating Jews. They were the true patriots.

Even the BBC implied that His Majesty’s Government considered Netanyahu’s visit “an embarrassment”.

Many British Jews joined the Israelis, exasperated by the inaction of the communal leadership. Several leaders did indeed support the protests by implication in articles in the Jewish press. Others, however, resorted to caveats in a “Yes, but …” mode.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, in a plenary session on Sunday, voted overwhelmingly to express concern that the Israeli government included “individuals whose views and actions are in contrast to the tolerant and inclusive values of our community”. All well and good, but it took three months and 12 weeks of growing protest to reach this conclusion — the election was on November 1 and the government formed on December 29. A consensus for the vote was only attained when the names of Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Maoz were removed from the resolution.

Even so, this marked an awakening on the part of deputies from a long-time slumber.

Still others proclaimed that the House of Israel should not be divided — and called for compromise.

Significantly, Netanyahu did not wish to face Jewish organisations in private, where troubling questions would be posed. He was however willing to be interviewed by Piers Morgan on Talk TV and projected himself at his most soothing, soft-soaping, rational best.

He spoke about “the ossification of the three branches of government” and argued that there had to be checks and balances on the Supreme Court which had moved from being independent to being all-powerful during the last ten years. London, however, was not the best location to suggest that “judges select themselves” — a selection system that has prevailed for centuries in the United Kingdom and has acted as a bulwark against unscrupulous politicians.

The demonstrations outside Downing Street and later outside Netanyahu’s hotel, the prestigious Savoy Hotel, were an indication that communal leaders were no longer in charge. They had failed to provide an adequate response to the demands of the moment — the defence of an independent judiciary and the rule of law in Israel.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) published research last week that indicated a 70% disapproval rating for Netanyahu among British Jews. Like the French in Macron’s France, Jews know implicitly when it is time to take to the streets.

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, published a call for calm and articulated a fear that events in Israel would lead to, “God forbid”, a civil war. While well intentioned, it seemed more like a holding operation than a principled stand when moral leadership was called for.

Both of the Chief Rabbi’s parents were active in opposing apartheid in South Africa and he himself used to accompany his father on visits to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. He has also spoken out passionately about the plight of the beleaguered migrants in Calais, attempting to secure passage to England.

Yet Mirvis’s breaking of his silence in such a non-committal fashion is perhaps indicative of the shackled nature of the Chief Rabbinate. As it was with his predecessors, Immanuel Jakobovits and Jonathan Sacks, when it came to Israel there were roadblocks established by an insular and quiescent constituency who feared the public crossing of the red lines of rabbinical propriety.

The lesson drawn from this is that chief rabbis have clear limits to their authority. The social contract signed when they were appointed meant that their tasks were limited to traditionally designated ones. It did not mean taking a moral stand on events in Israel — this in effect meant farming out such questions to Masorti, Reform and Liberal rabbis and to writers, academics and intellectuals who were often secular.

The unity that Chief Rabbi Mirvis has been calling for has, ironically, been achieved through the working together of expatriate Israelis and British Jews to ensure that Israel remained a democratic republic, to cement the belief in the independence of thought and to demand that the rule of law be upheld. It is this unity that has brought British Jews closer to the state of Israel.

There is, of course, the continuing fear of the central Orthodox that they will be subjected to the wrath of the Haredim — of groups such as Lubavitch-Habad — which today occupy important positions in Diaspora communities. Lubavitch emissaries have worked hard over many decades to bring Jews in from the cold and have established a plethora of worthy institutions.

Yet the darker side of Lubavitch is that their adherents voted in droves for Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. After all, Lubavitch requested American Jews with dual nationality to go and vote for the Likud in the 1996 election — a proposal embellished by their slogan: “Netanyahu is good for the Jews!” Do they still believe it today?

The religious Zionists of central Orthodoxy used to laud figures such as Meir Bar-Ilan and disparage the anti-Zionism of the Hatam Sofer, the 19th-century sage who rejected the Jewish Enlightenment. Today they sit in an embarrassed silence as Smotrich and Ben-Gvir speak in their name.

The events in Israel which have provoked such widespread dissent have their origin in Netanyahu’s alignment with American libertarians and his long-held identification with the US Republican party. After all, he spent 18 years in the country. Conservatives, Haredim and evangelicals have proved little more than fellow travellers in Netanyahu’s libertarian journey.

The slide to imported libertarianism was elucidated in a remarkable piece of investigative journalism by Nettanel Slyomovics in Ha’aretz in March 2021. It detailed the work of a libertarian NGO, the Kohelet Policy Forum.

This group laid the intellectual basis for the workings of the Nation-State Act of July 2018 in Israel. It provided the Trump White House with the legal mechanism to overturn the Hansell Memorandum, a legal opinion submitted to the US State Department in 1978 which argued that settlements on the West Bank are “inconsistent with international law”.

The research carried out by Kohelet, located in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem and funded from abroad, also laid the foundations for the controversial policy for “reform” of the judiciary and suggested means of extinguishing many other black spots in Netanyahu’s lexicon of past misdemeanours. Last week, the Knesset repealed the act of disengagement from Gaza in 2005 as part of a series of moves to turn the clock back.

Kohelet’s aims appear to create an Israel moulded in its own image — one which embraces a libertarian future. Headed by Moshe Koppel, an American-born professor of computer science at Bar-Ilan University, Kohelet employs 140 staffers.

Koppel, a member of Likud’s central committee, seems to have succeeded where homegrown members of the far Right within the Likud such as Moshe Feiglin failed to make a breakthrough. The key to Kohelet’s success has been Koppel’s relationship with Jewish libertarians in the US who care about Israel but have an American vision of what a Hebrew republic should be.

Slyomovics reported that two low profile US billionaires, Jeff Yass and Arthur Dantchik were associated with Kohelet. Partners since their university days, they were strong supporters of Trump and donors to his campaigns. They were associated with the seed money, offered to a Chinese entrepreneur, to develop TikTok, which was threatened last week with banning by a Congressional committee for its alleged links to the Chinese Communist party. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal estimated that the firm of Yass and Dantchik was worth $80 billion.

In the context of current events in Israel, all this has cast the spotlight on Kohelet and its mission. Koppel was the subject of a demonstration last week outside a venue in New York. He was scheduled to address the local chapter of Aish HaTorah , an international outreach organisation.

Netanyahu’s long-time cultivation of the well-to-do in the US therefore continues to provide political dividends, but it is clear that a growing number of individuals, including Moshe Koppel himself, have reservations about Netanyahu’s proposals such as the judicial override law.

There is a sense that with Smotrich — “judges appoint judges” — and Ben-Gvir, instructing the police, things have got out of hand. Koppel and others are awakening to the fact that libertarianism in an age of post-truth does not recognise borders.

The cracks that appeared last week became exponentially wider after Gallant’s sacking — the demonstrations larger, the protests international and more raucous, the list of Israel’s critical friends longer and the refusal of Diaspora Jews to remain silent more adamant. In Israel, even 102-year-old Dan Tolkowsky, the head of the fledgling Israeli Air Force during the 1950s, has added his voice to the growing clamour. No longer could Netanyahu be labelled ‘the Magician’ for his expertise in political escapology.

It is also clear that many in the traditional leadership in the Diaspora had lost control of the narrative. Like the Soviet Jewry campaign half a century ago, they have been replaced by those who are willing to lead.

Netanyahu’s attempt to avoid his trial by controlling the judiciary will not succeed. There will be no civil war but Netanyahu’s policies, judged in the court of public opinion, will surely be abandoned in its totality. And when it happens, Diaspora Jewry and its leadership will have to reflect on its meaning.

Plus61j 28 March 2023

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