The howls of outrage were heard on both sides of the Atlantic. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a shot at protesters who were planning to sabotage his trip to the United States and appearance at the U.N. General Assembly this week, he gave full vent to his resentment at their activities. He described the opposition groups that have projected an image on the side of the world body’s headquarters and who will be not just dogging him every stop on his trip but also demonstrating at the U.N. building itself as “joining forces with the PLO and Iran.”
He shouldn’t have said that—or at least not in that way. But those blasting him for it are ignoring the implications of their own actions, which, like it or not, are providing ammunition to those who don’t want merely to delegitimize Israel’s government but destroy the Jewish state.
Netanyahu’s statement was denounced by his political opponents at home as well as by the Israeli press as an outrageous slander. They spoke of the demonstrators as “patriots” who deserved respect, not comparisons to those forces wanting an end to Israel.
And to some extent, the criticisms were justified. Those Israelis who hate him and who have done all in their power to try to topple his government since it took office at the end of December are not the same thing as terrorist murderers or Islamist theocrats bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state. At best, Netanyahu’s comments were intemperate partisan hyperbole. At worst, they were an example of how the battle over judicial reform and the composition of the current government has crossed over into the sort of culture war that threatens the social fabric of the nation.
But the idea that it is Netanyahu who crossed the “red lines” that should exist in a democracy to ensure that political debate remains at least somewhat civil is absurd. Even if it would have been more statesmanlike for Netanyahu to try to rise above the fray, the protests being conducted during his visit to the United States are far worse than anything he said. Indeed, the entire tenor of the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations and the efforts by his opponents to sabotage the economy and national security in order to get their way are not the actions of a loyal, let alone civil, opposition.
By falsely branding the prime minister as an authoritarian and the efforts by the coalition to enact a program of reform of Israel’s out-of-control and power-mad judiciary as a “coup,” the protesters have crossed over from political debate to a campaign of delegitimization that is incompatible with a functioning democracy.
Even worse, it soon became apparent that this struggle was not really so much about judicial reform. Nor was it just about the dismay that the losers of the election conducted in November 2022 felt about the end of the three-year-long stalemate that ended with the Likud Party and its religious allies gaining a clear majority in the Knesset. More than that, it is a culture war in which the country’s Ashkenazi secular liberal elites feel power slipping from their grasp. That’s why they want not so much to preserve the Israeli Supreme Court but to allow it to rule unchallenged and unelected as the last bastion of the old left’s once-complete dominance of every government institution. And it’s why the demonstrators have engaged in the most vicious slurs against the largely Mizrachi, religious and nationalist voters who helped elect Netanyahu.
All that is bad enough. But what the anti-Bibi resistance ignores is the way their campaign is regarded by those who have very different goals than others who just want a return to the good old days when the Israeli left ran the Jewish state—and, I might add did, so without a Supreme Court having a fraction of the power it claims to possess today.
The protesters claim that the winner of a democratic election whose goal is to give the Knesset and the executive back some of the power that the courts seized without reference to any law or constitution other than their own self-manufactured whims is an authoritarian and seeking to end democracy isn’t just wrong. It’s gaslighting.
It’s not just that it is unseemly for groups of Israeli immigrants to the United States and other leftist allies to hound the democratically elected leader of their former country as he carries out his routine task of trying to build support for the Jewish state, especially at the United Nations. The claim that Netanyahu is a “criminal” because of bogus corruption charges that don’t stand up to scrutiny, and which even the judges in the case that is dragging on for years have already said has no chance of ending in a conviction, is also cheap partisan rhetoric.
But in a non-Israeli context, all this also has the effect of undermining Israel’s stance as the only true democracy in the Middle East. Those who make this argument are assisting Israel’s foes, whether that is their intent or not. They are demonizing the country’s leader and his supporters. People like The New York Times columnists Bret Stephens and Thomas Friedman, who support the anti-Bibi resistance, argue that at least half of Israel are “deplorable” would-be tyrants who are indistinguishable from their Arab and Islamic foes. That is a direct assault not just on Israel’s image but exactly what the intersectional left, which is trying to convince Americans that Israelis are “white” oppressors of Palestinians, is trying to argue.
It’s all well and good to say that Netanyahu should be more polite when talking about his critics. But those who are treating Bibi as if he were the moral equivalent of an Iranian or Palestinian terrorist who threatens Israel are in no position to complain about civility or hurt feelings. Moreover, the resistance’s efforts to foment mutiny in the Israel Defense Forces and to persuade investors to remove capital from the country are not behaving in a manner that is patriotic or in line with the aims of any real democratic movement.
Netanyahu’s opponents are entitled to say what they like as well as to demonstrate. It should be noted, however, that their tactics of blocking highways and paralyzing the country wouldn’t be tolerated, and, in fact, would be labeled as thuggish and anti-democratic if it were the political right that was behaving in that fashion. Just look back to the protests against the Oslo Accords in the 1990s and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Still, they have no right to cry foul when it is pointed out that their efforts to delegitimize an Israeli government not just at home but abroad go far beyond anything ever done by their opponents.
Some who are protesting are upset about any connection being made between their hatred for Netanyahu and support for a juristocracy with the efforts to falsely smear Israel as an “apartheid state.” But the links are there. And it will be no coincidence that while they are trashing the only man who is standing up against the lies of the Palestinians and the nuclear threat from Iran on the podium of the United Nations, there will be other demonstrators there supporting Israel’s destruction. A more responsible opposition would have chosen to say that politics end “at the water’s edge,” as Michigan Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg famously said of debates among Americans in the 1940s. Instead, they have chosen to recognize no limits to their campaign to slander Netanyahu and his voters.
While the prime minister should be more careful when expressing his frustration about his political foes, those who are lying about him and his voters are the ones who should be ashamed of themselves.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him at: @jonathans_tobin.