Since 1975
  • facebook
  • twitter

Netanyahu’s Israel is fast losing its American friends

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February. (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February. (Reuters)
Short Url:
24 Mar 2024 08:03:33 GMT9
24 Mar 2024 08:03:33 GMT9

When a hard-hitting speech by the most senior Democrat in the Senate, one delivered from the floor of the chamber, is praised by the US president as a “good speech,” those who are on the receiving end of its tongue-lashing should take note, as if the words came straight from the mouth of the president.

Come to think of it, the heartfelt speech by Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, about the fallout from the war in Gaza could, and should, have been delivered by Joe Biden himself.

What Schumer stated, passionately and eloquently, could also easily have been pieced together from what the president and many members of his top foreign policy team have been publicly expressing over the past few weeks, albeit in dribs and drabs and without forming a coherent policy toward achieving an immediate ceasefire and establishing a plan for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this devastating war.

Following Schumer’s speech on March 14, much was made of his call for Israel to hold a general election, which for all intents and purposes was a call not only to get rid of the country’s current, ultranationalist government but for an end to the Benjamin Netanyahu era.

Certainly, he outlined four obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on a two-state solution, among which, as might be expected, was Hamas but also the Palestinian Authority, including President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, his forthright call for the change of a democratically elected government, in a country that happens to be one of Washington’s closest allies, was unprecedented.

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish American in the US government, stated bluntly: “I believe that holding a new election once the war starts to wind down would give Israelis an opportunity to express their vision for the postwar future.”

Netanyahu’s response to Schumer’s portrayal of him — as an obstacle to peace who should be removed — was to call it inappropriate, coming from a sister democracy, and to declare that the issue was for the Israeli public alone to decide because Israel “is not a banana republic” — a claim that these days sounds more hollow than ever.

Firstly, the public is all-too desperate to make its wishes known at the ballot box, as has been repeatedly made clear over the past five months in survey after survey. After all, who would not like to see a new leadership replace a government that has presided over the worst disaster in the country’s history?

Secondly, no other leader in Israel’s history has taken the country so far along the road to becoming a banana republic, through implication in corruption scandals and the distortion of good governance as a result of cronyism and incompetence, than Netanyahu.

Moreover, he has no leg to stand on when he complains about intervention in the domestic affairs of another country, for he has done so throughout his political career, particularly with regard to the US.

Netanyahu and his government have proved unreceptive to the voice of reason, even coming from its closest ally.

Yossi Mekelberg

For months now, Netanyahu and other prominent Israelis have been dismissive of criticism about the contempt with which they have treated civilian lives while conducting the war in Gaza. They shrug it off as originating from lefty-liberal progressives who oppose Israel and Zionism. Whatever merit there might be in this view is very limited, at best, and by no stretch of the imagination do Biden and Schumer fit such a profile.

For many years they have been two of Israel’s closest friends and supporters, and in Schumer’s case representative of the segment of the Jewish community in America that wholeheartedly supports Israel and the very idea of a Jewish state.

Netanyahu might pour scorn on the current position of Biden and Schumer but the people of his country should not, not only because of the merits of that position, but for the price that might have to be paid for ignoring it.

If in the early days of Israel’s independence American support was derived primarily from what both sides believed to be shared democratic values, together with a US sense of obligation to help ensure the security and well-being of Israel for historical reasons, a true strategic alliance subsequently evolved between the two countries.

This is increasingly jeopardized every single day that Netanyahu remains prime minister. If the trend continues, the close relationship between the nations will increasingly come under scrutiny and, in addition, support from its Jewish community might also suffer long-term damage.

As truthful and appropriate as it is to blame Netanyahu and his government for being so detrimental to efforts to reach a peace agreement based on a two-state solution, the very people who now level this criticism should ask themselves why it has taken them so long to reach that conclusion.

Regardless, now that doubts about the value of supporting Israel without applying close scrutiny of its actions have entered the conversation between the two countries, they will remain a strong feature in the relationship, which might actually prove to be a positive development and put their relations on a healthier footing.

There is no suggestion that Washington is about to abandon its close relationship with Israel. However, the war in Gaza is demonstrating that the US should be extremely cautious about giving Israeli authorities carte blanche to operate however they see fit, whatever the circumstances, and should not provide the means with which to behave so irresponsibly and in contradiction of US interests, which in this case are also threatened by the growing possibility of regional and international instability.

Israel also needs to finally recognize what is now being expressed more clearly by US officials in general, and in no uncertain terms by Schumer: If Israel wishes to enjoy the full support of America, it must genuinely commit to a two-state solution, starting with the prevention of settler violence in the occupied West Bank and by halting the expansion of Jewish settlements there.

A significant, though long overdue, sign that the US is losing patience with Israel was its decision to impose sanctions on violent settlers and on certain settlements that are notorious for being breeding grounds for settler terrorism. It is still a very limited response but at least this Rubicon has now been crossed.

Most importantly, the new policy is not directed only at the settlers but at an Israeli government that allows them to act with impunity.

Netanyahu and his government have proved unreceptive to the voice of reason, even coming from its closest ally. Until now, there have been few consequences of this but the more often that straight-talking remarks, such as those delivered by Schumer and endorsed by the president, are aired publicly, the more they are likely to resonate with the Israeli public and the choices it makes in terms of its leadership and the direction the country should take.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
Most Popular

return to top