Can Americans Save Israel from Its Own Extremism?

Isolated under Netanyahu, the editors of Israel’s leading liberal newspaper are coming to New York to try to restore a sense of reason.

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty

The year 2016 is crucial for both Americans and Israelis. While Americans will go to the polls and elect their leader for the next four years, Israelis must decide whether the aggressive march toward rightwing extremism led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be embraced or rejected.

Progressives in Israel feel powerless and contemplate leaving Israel for good. We need to get out of this melancholy spiral, stand up for peace, democracy and equality and reach out to like-minded people abroad, particularly in the United States, who worry about the direction of Israel in Netanyahu’s fourth term.

That's why Haaretz has made the decision to expand its presence in the United States, where progressive values are welcomed, rather than dismissed as “aiding the enemy,” which is often the case with Netanyahu and his media choir.

Strengthened by a decisive re-election victory this year, Netanyahu immediately ousted his former conservative self and reincarnated as a radical nationalist with unprecedented power.

He viewed the election as an opportunity to fulfill his old dream of “elite change,” doing away with the dominance of the Oslo-era-speak of peace and compromise with the Palestinians, replacing it with opposition to any territorial change in West Bank. While paying occasional lip service to the two-state solution, the Prime Minister declared that Israel “must control the entire territory in the foreseeable future.”

The public embraced the message from the top. Israel’s mainstream media parrots Netanyahu’s narrative: the Jewish state faces a permanent threat of annihilation, the Palestinians are the present-day Nazis, and the West is either anti-Semitic or oblivious to the fate of the Jews, just as it was during the Holocaust.

By this logic, Israel will survive only by shows of force. When the Cabinet outlawed the local Islamic movement, against the advice of the Security Service, Yitzhak Herzog, the opposition leader only criticized Netanyahu for not doing it earlier.

Emboldened right-wing politicians grew more explicit than ever before. Breaking long rabbinical and political taboos, they advocate Jewish worship on the Temple Mount (Haram al Sharif) in Jerusalem, fueling the current wave of Palestinian violence. They call for annexing the West Bank into Israel and promote bills and regulations to silence human-rights NGOs and other critics of the occupation. Moderate voices like State President Reuven Rivlin, a former right-winger, are targets of virulent attacks on social networks.

Israel’s besieged liberals have followed these developments with growing concern for the country’s democracy, moral principles, and international stance.

The rise of a right-wing government committed to indefinite occupation of millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, a new round of violence and rising religious extremism, internal threats to the freedom of expression and free speech, mistreatment of asylum seekers and growing international isolation following the Iran deal, make us ever more worried about the country’s future.

But our worries fail to resonate, domestically or externally. Netanyahu is getting away with his reborn nationalism. He lost his uphill battle with President Obama over the Iran deal, but as a consolation prize, received an effective American waiver on the peace process. And with both the West and Russia preoccupied with ISIS massacres, they pay little attention to the stalemated Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

As long as Netanyahu avoids too much controversial settlement building and oppresses the Palestinian “limited uprising,” to use the IDF term, with relatively little force—the world simply doesn’t care.

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In recent days, following another pointless visit by Secretary of State John Kerry, the Israeli Cabinet discussed the possible dismantlement of the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu is more cautious, realizing the diplomatic and economic costs for Israel if the PA disappears. But would he try to save it from oblivion, if it collapses under the multiple strains of Israeli occupation, public alienation and global indifference? This will be the culmination of Netanyahu’s revolution. And given the current international attitude, he may not be proven wrong.

That is why we are reaching outside of our borders to check Netanyahu’s revolution and turn back this dangerous nationalist movement, which threatens Israel’s future. And we begin by turning to our American friends whose voices have been drowned out for too long. Now is our opportunity to make a change.

Don’t leave us alone.

Aluf Benn is the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Israel’s liberal newspaper. Haaretz will be hosting the “HaaretzQ with the New Israel Fund” conference, a first-of-its-kind gathering aimed at addressing the most pressing questions about Israel, in New York City on Dec. 13, 2015.