Israeli government picks a fight with Washington because it knows it is in the wrong
One of the characteristics of bullies is that while they are utterly disrespectful of the needs, wishes and feelings of other people, and utterly lacking in empathy, they are at the same time exceptionally thin-skinned and very touchy when faced with any hint of criticism.
This is a rather accurate description of most of the current Israeli Cabinet. They find it completely acceptable to attempt to coerce an entire country into giving up some of the fundamental elements of its democratic system, but react aggressively to anyone who dares question the antidemocratic measures they are promoting, accusing them of being traitors and ignoramuses who refuse to respect the result of the election. In other words, they indulge in classic gaslighting behavior, with the aim of intimidating and sowing fear among their opponents.
This behavior does not end at their country’s borders. As well as attempting to intimidate their own citizens, they are taking it a step further by trying to silence criticism from abroad. This is mainly because many of the bullies that comprise this Israeli government — first and foremost its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — know full well that they are in the wrong and that their so-called “judicial reforms” are merely an effort to introduce a quasi-dictatorship.
They are also aware that international opposition to their democracy-destroying policies is providing a tail wind behind those inside Israel who have been protesting against this government’s actions week in, week out for nearly six months now.
Recently, and unexpectedly, it was US Vice President Kamala Harris who fell foul of the bellicose nature of the Netanyahu coalition that rears up when faced with any sign of criticism. Her speech was delivered during a celebration organized by the Israeli Embassy in Washington to mark the country’s 75th Independence Day.
It was by no means a hardcore critique of Israel. On the contrary, it was sown with references to her personal attachment to Judaism (unsurprisingly, considering her husband is Jewish), and full of praise for the achievements of the Jewish state, applauding its ingenuity and creativity. But above all it emphasized America’s commitment to Israel’s security and the peace treaties the country has been signing with its neighbors in recent years.
However, one small passage of her speech, which given the current political circumstances in Israel was inevitable, upset the Israeli foreign minister no end. Harris emphasized that America “will continue to stand for the values that have been the bedrock of the US-Israel relationship, which includes continuing to strengthen our democracies.” She went on to point out that both countries were “built on strong institutions, checks and balances and, I’ll add, an independent judiciary.”
Yes, this was a swipe at the Netanyahu government’s unprincipled attempts to disfigure Israel’s democracy beyond recognition by making the judiciary, and thus the rule of law, subservient to the country’s politicians and, by doing so, destroying the system of checks and balances.
Nevertheless, this was as mild a criticism as anyone could have come up with. It certainly was not the real rollicking that the Israeli government deserves from its closest ally, and definitely not a warning or threat regarding the consequences for the special relationship between the two countries should it continue down its destructive path.
And yet, if the American vice president was cautious and diplomatic, the response from Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was flippant and insulting, demonstrating either that he did not pay careful attention to her speech, or was simply trying to curry favor with his boss and/or his right-wing supporters.
Undiplomatically, Cohen suggested that Harris, a distinguished lawyer and a former Californian attorney general, had not read the proposed legislation and if she had, she would be unable to provide one aspect of it that should bother her.
The 2023 Netanyahu model is too weak to contain the irresponsible elements within his government.
Even for a representative of the most populist, right-wing government in Israel’s history, and one that thrives on confrontation with the world, this was an example of pushing a number of diplomatic boundaries in all the wrong ways.
Harris might have been reserved in her criticism but she knows a thing or two about the importance of maintaining checks and balances in a democratic system, and how harmful to such a system the moves by the current Israeli administration are. No surprise, then, that the US Ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, voiced his disapproval of Cohen’s remarks, which led to the latter toning them down somewhat, while still insisting that the subject is an internal Israeli issue.
This Israeli display of bravado and show of defiance demonstrates weakness rather than strength and is eroding the country’s relationship with its most powerful ally.
For decades, US military, political, diplomatic, and economic support has facilitated Israel becoming a regional powerhouse with a thriving economy and one of the most powerful armies in the world. Israel receives at least $3.8 billion in US aid annually, is supplied with some of the most sophisticated weaponry, enjoys a free-trade agreement and, equally important, the US takes into account Israeli considerations and reservations in its relations with other countries.
In the UN Security Council, for example, Washington blocked the recognition of Palestine as a state. It supported the Abraham Accords, despite Israel constantly taking actions that harm the prospect of peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. And it habitually defends Israel in the international arena, even when it does not agree with it.
All this is, to a large extent, the result of the two countries’ strong democratic ties, as well as their work to contain Iran’s nuclear, and more conventional, ambitions.
In the past, Netanyahu knew how to exploit American criticism by utilizing it to curb the more extreme elements in his previous coalition governments, arguing that Israel could not afford to fall out with Washington.
And it is not only this bilateral relationship that is at risk; without the cover provided by the American strategic umbrella, Israel’s standing in the international community will suffer, because the closeness of the relationship between the two nations has made the Jewish state a desirable partner for other countries that believe the way to Washington’s heart goes through Israel.
But the 2023 Netanyahu model is too weak to contain the irresponsible elements within his government, as was the case last week when an Israeli minister, Amichai Chikli, who ironically is in charge of diaspora affairs, attacked the progressive Jewish-American advocacy group J Street as a “hostile organization,” and accused prominent American citizen George Soros of being an enemy of Israel. Needless to say, he offered no evidence to back up his claims and Netanyahu remained silent.
At a time when there are already voices in Congress questioning the wisdom of the US investing in an alliance that is associated with the occupation of another nation and depriving that nation’s people of their rights, and now that this ally is not only watering down its own democracy but is also insolent in the face of criticism from its friends, both in Washington and across the US, it should come as no surprise that the US is increasingly having to ask itself whether Israel is becoming a burden rather than an asset.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.