In the last year, we’ve heard a lot about the threat to Israeli democracy from critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. According to this narrative—endlessly hyped by Jewish left-wingers and mimicked in mainstream media forums like The New York Times—Netanyahu is subverting the values upon which the country was founded by undermining its Supreme Court, reducing non-Jews to second-class citizens, toadying to haredi political parties and other right-wing allies, and attacking the news media.
If you substitute evangelical Christians for the haredim, the similarities with critiques of the Trump administration are clear. That’s hardly an accident, as some of Netanyahu’s foes believe that his close ties with U.S. President Donald Trump is at the top of the list of their grievances.
But, as is the case in the United States, the talk about democracy is really just code for politics. A good example of this is a group of top retired Israeli generals who are currently on tour in the United States seeking to convince leading Jewish organizations, as well as Congress, to turn their backs on Netanyahu.
The touring veterans are from Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of retired senior officers at odds with Netanyahu about the peace process and how best to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. They think that Israel must withdraw from the West Bank as soon as possible, and view the Palestinians’ refusal to seriously negotiate or to accept past offers of statehood as irrelevant. They feel that the security consequences of repeating Ariel Sharon’s experiment in Gaza—in which Israel withdrew from territory and then watched helplessly as it was turned into an independent Palestinian terror state—in the larger and more strategic West Bank are not worth worrying about.
Their representatives who have come to the United States are a distinguished lot. The group is led by Gen. Amnon Reshef, a hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The rest of his crew have equally glittering résumés as leaders of the Israel Defense Forces, as well as advisers for past governments that helped conduct negotiations with the Palestinians.
They can expect a warm welcome when they reportedly get together with leaders of Jewish Federations in Boston; New York; Chicago; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and in meetings with members of Congress.
Their records entitle them to the respect of their audiences. But there should be no doubt about their purpose. Rather than, as one would hope, an effort to strengthen ties between America and Israel, the group can best be described as embarking on an anti-democracy tour.
The short version of their pitch is that the Israeli people are idiots. Faced with a choice in the last three elections between Netanyahu, and his coalition partners and parties that roughly agree with the generals’ ideas, Israelis chose the former, not the latter. Every poll of the Israeli electorate indicates that the next Knesset election, which will likely be held some time in 2019, will not only replicate that result, but lead to an even larger majority for the prime minister in spite of Netanyahu’s legal troubles.
The reasons for this are obvious. After the Palestinians literally blew up belief in the Oslo peace process in the Second Intifada and Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal led to a Hamas state, few in Israel believe they have a credible peace partner. If they did, I have little doubt that a majority of Israelis would be willing to try again to trade land for peace. But as long as the Palestinians are led by people like Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, they know that that any further concessions would mean trading, as they did with Oslo and with Gaza, land for terror and not peace.
The generals have every right to think that Israelis voters were wrong and to make their case to them during the next election season to change their minds. But that’s not what they’re doing. Their goal is to undermine support for Israel’s democratically elected government, as well as the political consensus that put in power. They want to persuade leading American Jews and Congress to pressure Netanyahu to follow the generals’ advice.
While these military leaders are entitled to say what they like, whether in Israel or in the United States, let’s be clear that their goal is to undermine Israeli democracy.
Whatever you may think about Netanyahu, religious pluralism or the long-term consequences of an unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, talk about the end of Israeli democracy is merely a subterfuge. The main problem of Netanyahu’s critics is not their bogus case alleging attacks on democracy, but the fact that the democratic process keeps yielding results that are not to their liking.
There are those who liken the fact that Israeli voters reject the advice of retired military experts to the way some people don’t accept predictions of catastrophe due to global warming. But ordinary Israelis are not in denial about the reality of the conflict. To the contrary, they are the ones who have been paying attention to the Palestinians’ rejection of peace and commitment to terrorism. While they have confidence in the Israel Defense Forces, they think that turning the West Bank into another Gaza under current circumstances is madness.
To Americans who can’t stand Netanyahu and regard Trump’s support for Israel with suspicion, the generals sound smart. But they should remember that these same generals had their way from 2009 to 2016, when President Barack Obama pushed hard for exactly the template for peace they wanted and were ignored by the Palestinians as they refused to make peace on terms that would actually end the conflict, rather than merely enact a truce before it could be resumed on less advantageous terms for Israel.
They should also remember that if the Israeli people reject the generals’ advice, it is because they believe that they’re dead wrong, and have no appetite for a repeat of the bloodshed that ensued in the wake of Oslo and the Gaza withdrawal. If you really support Israeli democracy, give the generals a respectful hearing—and then tell them to go home and try to win an election.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.