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Why Netanyahu's New Government Could Alienate Israel's Conservative American Allies

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — The op-ed was typical of the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page, extolling the virtues of moderation in all things.

The difference is that the author of the article published on Wednesday, Bezalel Smotrich, has a reputation as an extremist, and the political scene he envisioned is in Israel, not America.

Experts who follow the US-Israel relationship say the op-ed had a clear purpose: to allay the fears of US conservatives that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long cultivated as allies and who could be shaken by his new extremist partners in the government of Israel. Israel.

Those partners include Smotrich, the religious Zionist bloc leader and self-described “proud homophobe” who Israeli intelligence officials have accused of masterminding terrorist attacks – and who was sworn in as finance minister in Netanyahu’s new government on Thursday. They also include Itamar Ben Gvir, who was convicted of incitement for his past support of Jewish terrorists, who will oversee Israel’s police.

The presence of Smotrich, Ben Gvir and their parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has alarmed American liberals, including some in the Biden administration. But experts say conservatives are feeling scared too.

“The conservative right was [Netanyahu] and now he seems to be riding the tiger of the radical right,” said David Makovsky, a member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who just returned from a trip to Israel, where he met with top officials from the outgoing and incoming government. governments. “I think it will alienate the very people who counted on him being risk averse and focusing on the economy.”

Members of the new Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pose for a group photo at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his article published on Tuesday, two days before the new Israeli government is sworn in, Smotrich tried to persuade Americans that the new government is not the hotbed of ultranationalism and religious extremism that the American press has portrayed.

“The US media has vilified me and the traditionalist bloc to which I belong since our success in the November elections in Israel,” he wrote. “They say that I am a right-wing extremist and that our bloc will start a ‘halachic state’ in which Jewish law governs. In reality, we seek to strengthen the freedoms of each citizen and the democratic institutions of the country, bringing Israel closer to the American liberal model”.

The opinion piece is at odds with the stated objectives of the coalition agreements; while Smotrich says there will be no legal changes to the disputed areas in the West Bank, the agreements include a promise to annex areas at an unspecified time and to legalize outposts considered illegal even under Israeli law. He says the changes in religious practice will not involve coercion, but the deal allows companies to refuse service “because of a religious belief”, which one member of his party anticipated could extend to declining service for LGBTQ people.

Netanyahu has alienated the American left with his relentless attacks on the preference for a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he considers dangerous and naive. (He also differs from them on how to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.) Instead, he cultivated a base on the right through close ties to the Republican Party and among evangelicals, in part because he has long championed the values ​​that traditional conservatives hold dear, including the free market and a united, robust Western stance against extremism and terrorism.

But his alliance with Smotrich and others seen as theocratic extremists could be a bridge too far, even for Netanyahu’s conservative friends who champion democratic values ​​abroad, said Dov Zakheim, a veteran defense official in several Republican administrations.

“Traditional conservatives are much closer to the Bushes and Jim Baker and those kinds of people,” he said, referring to the two former presidents and the late George HW Bush’s secretary of state.

Illustrative: Dov S. Zakheim (center), co-chair of the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition of the American Jewish Committee (J-REC), speaks at the Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Jan. 11, 2017. (AJC)

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the article was likely written at Netanyahu’s request with those conservatives in mind.

“The Wall Street Journal article was designed to appeal to traditional conservatives,” he said. “It was designed to send a message to the American public on a large scale that the way in which Smotrich and perhaps [Itamar] Ben Gvir has been described based on past statements and not necessarily his forward-looking policies.”

The immediate predicate for the op-ed, insiders say, was likely a New York Times editorial on Dec. 17 that called the new administration “a significant threat to Israel’s future” because of the extremist positions that Smotrich and other partners hold. adopted, including the annexation of the West Bank, restrictions on non-Orthodox and non-Jewish citizens, lessening the independence of the courts, reforming the Law of Return that would make large chunks of diaspora Jews ineligible, and anti-LGBTQ measures.

Smotrich in his op-ed casts the changes not as radical departures from democratic norms, but as adjustments that would bring Israel more in line with US values. He said he would pursue a “broad free market policy” as finance minister. He likened the religious reforms to the Supreme Court decision allowing Christian contractors to refuse work to LGBTQ couples.

“For example, organizing a minuscule number of beaches separated by sex, as we propose, hardly limits the choices of most Israelis who prefer mixed beaches,” wrote Smotrich. “It simply provides an option for others.”

In the West Bank, Smotrich said, his finance ministry would promote the construction of infrastructure and jobs that would benefit both Israeli and Palestinian Jewish settlers. “This does not imply changing the political or legal status of the area.”

This photo taken on May 10, 2022 shows construction work at the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev, near Jerusalem. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Such ointments contradict the stated goals of the new government’s coalition deal, Anshel Pfeffer, Netanyahu’s biographer and Haaretz analyst, said in a Twitter thread criticizing Smotrich’s op-ed.

“Smotrich says his policy does not mean changing the political or legal status of the occupied territories as long as annexation actually appears in the coalition agreement and his plans certainly change the legal status of the settlements,” Pfeffer said.

Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said foreign media alarm about the composition of the new government was premature.

“I suspect that the great mass of people will maintain their support for Israel because it has nothing to do with passing from one government to another and everything to do with the principle that Israel is a pro-American country. democracy in a region that is very important,” she said.

That said, Pletka said, the changes in policy adopted by Smotrich and his group could alienate Americans if they become policy.

“I think a lot of things could change if the Netanyahu government’s rhetoric becomes political, but now it’s rhetoric,” she said. “What you tend to see in normal governments is that they have to make a series of compromises between rhetoric that favors their base and governance.”

Then-US President Donald Trump, center, with Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al -Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Pletka said Netanyahu’s stated ambition to expand the 2020 Abraham Accords for peace with Saudi Arabia would likely inhibit Smotrich’s plans to annex the West Bank. In the summer of 2020, the last time Netanyahu planned annexation, the UAE, one of the four Arab Parties to the Abraham Accords, threatened to withdraw unless Netanyahu backed down – which he did.

“It’s not just the relationship with the United States,” she said. “This could alienate their new friends in the Gulf, which ultimately could have more serious consequences.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly sought to convey the impression that he will keep his coalition partners on a tight leash.

“They are joining me, I am not joining them,” he said earlier this month. “I will have both hands firmly on the steering wheel. I will not let anyone do anything for LGBT [people] or denying our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that.”

Zakheim said Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and then from 2009 to 2021, has proven himself capable of leading broad coalitions – but there are two main differences now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his new government pose for a photo with then-President Ezer Weizman, June 1996. (Gideon Markowicz/IPPA, Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0)

Netanyahu wants his coalition partners to pass a law that would effectively end his criminal fraud trial, and they therefore wield unprecedented influence over him.

Furthermore, Netanyahu has in the past faced increased pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, which are susceptible to persuasion in funding their impoverished sector. This is not true of their new ideologically oriented partners.

“If you look back at his previous administrations, he was never really forced to make real policy decisions by those on his right,” Zekheim said. “Now he has a problem because those 15 or so seats to his right are interested in politics, not just money.”

Makovsky said Netanyahu appears to be leaving behind a conservatism that was sympathetic to his American counterpart’s prospects.

“His success is that he is a stabilizer. He is risk averse. He is focused on the prosperity of the country, with success in high technology. He is the one to be seen as the tenacious guardian against Iranian nuclear influence,” he said. “And those are things that people can relate to. Now, it looks like he’s just throwing the manual out the window.