columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Herzog’s duty is to stand with Israel’s elected government

A Biden “reassessment” of the alliance with Israel timed to next week’s visit won’t happen. But if the Israeli president publicly distances himself from Netanyahu, then it will be a betrayal of his office.

Israeli prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu accepts the mandate to form a government from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Nov. 13, 2022. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Israeli prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu accepts the mandate to form a government from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Nov. 13, 2022. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrives in Washington next week, he’ll get the kind of red-carpet treatment that is reserved for the friendliest and most important U.S. allies. The Jewish state certainly qualifies under both of those categories, but the reason for the warm welcome Herzog will receive has little to do with the Biden administration’s supposed devotion to the U.S.-Israel alliance. Rather, it will be an attempt to demonstrate its contempt for the Jewish state’s democratically elected government.

This will provide a crucial test for Herzog, a failed politician whose likable personality and reputation for personal integrity make him a good fit for the ceremonial post of Israel’s head of state.

Herzog is an ex-leader of the once-dominant but now marginal Labor Party. That makes him no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as his right-wing and religious allies who currently run the country. While he has signaled his desire to broker a compromise on judicial reform—the issue that is roiling Israeli politics right now—he has approached but not entirely crossed the line between anodyne calls for unity and brazen efforts to sabotage the government.

That is why he needs to be especially careful during this visit about sending signals to the Americans that he supports the opposition or buys into the hyperbole, hysteria and lies that they have been generating about curbing the power of the Israeli judiciary marking the end of democracy and the beginning of a Netanyahu dictatorship.

Doing so won’t just be inappropriate in a system where the president is supposed to be above politics. It would lend aid and comfort to those, like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who are openly rooting for Biden to undertake a formal “reassessment” of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

That comes as nothing new. It’s been a staple of the anti-Israel left for the last 15 years as groups like J Street, and more openly anti-Zionist allies/rivals like Jewish Voices for Peace and IfNotNow, have made no secret of their desire for Washington to unravel the alliance. They want the United States to employ brutal pressure on the Jewish state to force it to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, and much of Jerusalem, in order to create an independent Palestinian state there in addition to the one in Gaza ruled by the Hamas terror group.

Biden won’t go that far for a number of reasons—not the least of which he knows it won’t bring peace and that it would be a repeat of President Barack Obama’s mistake in expending political capital on behalf of Palestinians who don’t want it.

But Biden is going all in on an effort to coordinate with Israel’s opposition parties in their effort to topple Netanyahu’s government.

Netanyahu won a clear majority in the Knesset in an election held in November, but ever since he took office at the end of December, an “anti-Bibi resistance” has been using mass demonstrations in the streets, as well as other acts of not very civil disobedience, to thwart him. Israel’s liberal elites, who control almost all of the country’s media, as well as the legal, academic, business and even the security establishment, are aghast at the idea that the newly elected coalition will pass judicial reform and prevent an out-of-control judicial system and Supreme Court from effectively preventing the right from governing. Their goal is to create so much chaos that enough members of the coalition will lose their nerve, and thereby stop the legislative process and perhaps even topple Netanyahu.

Biden isn’t doing that for that sake of reviving a peace process in which the Palestinians have no interest.

Nor, despite the hypocritical and downright false comments about the issue of Israeli judicial reform emanating from the administration, do Biden and his foreign-policy team care about Israel’s Supreme Court and preserving its power to act in a high-handed and unaccountable manner that neither Democrats nor Republicans would tolerate from American judges.

What he wants is an Israeli prime minister who won’t make trouble about a new and even more dangerous Iran nuclear deal. A pliable and weak government, like the “anybody-but-Bibi” coalition that ruled Israel from June 2021 to December of last year, would suit Biden’s tastes, even if one like that was kicked out of office only eight months ago by Israel’s voters.

As for Friedman’s proposal, no one—not even on the anti-Israel left—looks to his columns for cogent analyses of Middle East policy anymore.

Once upon a time, Friedman’s views—spilled out into the pages of the Grey Lady in execrable prose that demonstrated the paper’s decline from the lofty standards upheld by giants on both the left and the right in its pages—were worth reading because they were a reliable indicator of what his sources in Israel’s Labor Party and among the U.S. State Department peace processors were thinking. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when his status as a confidant of the likes of anti-Israel stalwarts like George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James A. Baker, he was a not unimportant source of information, even if his work made for dismal reading.

But that was a long time ago. Today, his dogged belief in the “land for peace” idea that would bring to life the “New Middle East” that the late Shimon Peres dreamed of make him nothing more than a fossilized remnant of Oslo-era delusions that once passed for intelligent thought among both American and Israeli policy wonks.

Few in Israel share Friedman’s two-state theology, as the parties of the left collapsed in the wake of the failure of Oslo after the Palestinians repeatedly refused offers of peace and an independent state, and answered them with another generation of terrorism and bloodshed.

Even in a Biden administration staffed with Obama alumni, Friedman’s views are out of touch with current fashion. Senior figures like Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken may despise Israel’s government, but they have refused to follow their predecessors down the Mideast peace process rabbit hole. More junior officials sprinkled throughout an administration that has fully embraced wokeness view Israel with unabashed hostility as a neo-colonial expression of white privilege. They see Friedman’s vestigial Labor Party two-state talk as a blast from a past for which they have no time.

What does matter is the pressure building on Herzog—both from the opposition to Netanyahu and Israel-bashers in the United States—to both disparage the cause of judicial reform on foreign soil and give cover to those seeking to delegitimize Israel’s democratically elected government.

Had Herzog done as he should have from the start of this crisis, he would have made it clear that whatever anyone thinks of Netanyahu and his coalition, Israel has only one government at a time, and the way to change it is at the ballot box. That runs counter to efforts to disrupt daily life, tank the economy or undermine its security, and intimidate political opponents with thuggish tactics, as the anti-Bibi resistance has attempted to do.

He knows very well that despite the apocalyptic predictions about dictatorship, if Israel’s Supreme Court stops acting as if Israel is a juristocracy that the voters have no say over, the country’s democratic system is not in peril. Indeed, if there is any movement that is opposed to democracy, it is the people blocking highways, not Netanyahu.

But if Herzog acts in a manner that lends aid and comfort to those seeking to undermine Netanyahu while he’s in Washington, the prime minister won’t be the only one that is hurt. Israel-bashers like Friedman are prepared to sacrifice the alliance in order to win a political victory in Israel for the left that can’t be won by voting. Such a turn of events would help Israel’s enemies and encourage both an antisemitic BDS movement abroad and Palestinian terrorists to think their century-old war on Zionism can still be won. Whether he likes it or not, Herzog’s duty is to stand publicly with Netanyahu and his government against those whose real goal isn’t protecting Israeli democracy but supporting an American rapprochement with Iran and the downgrading of relations with Israel.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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