Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich during a vote in the plenum session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, Dec. 20, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Yonatan Sindel-Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich during a vote in the plenum session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, Dec. 20, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Yonatan Sindel-Flash90)

Netanyahu’s new government could lose a key constituency: American conservatives

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

The difference was that the author of the piece published Wednesday, Bezalel Smotrich, has a reputation for extremism, and the political landscape he was imagining is in Israel, not America.

Experts who track the U.S.-Israel relationship say the op-ed had a clear purpose: to quell the fears of American conservatives whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long cultivated as allies and who may be rattled by his new extremist partners in governing Israel.

Those partners include Smotrich, the Religious Zionist bloc leader and self-described “proud homophobe” whom Israeli intelligence officials have accused of planning terrorist attacks — and who was sworn in as finance minister in Netanyahu’s new government Thursday. They also include Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been 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 governing coalition has alarmed American liberals, including some in the Biden administration. But insiders say conservatives are feeling spooked, too.

“The conservative right was with [Netanyahu] and now he seems to be riding the tiger of the radical right,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who just returned from a tour of Israel where he met with senior officials of both the outgoing and incoming governments. “And I think that is bound to alienate the very people who counted on him being risk-averse and to focus on the economy.”

In his op-ed published on Tuesday, two days before the new Israeli government was sworn in, Smotrich sought to persuade Americans that the new government is not the hotbed of ultranationalist and religious extremism it has been made out to be in the American press.

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

The op-ed is at odds with the stated aims of the coalition agreements; whereas Smotrich says there will be no legal changes to disputed areas in the West Bank, the agreements include a pledge to annex areas at an unspecified time, and to legalize outposts deemed illegal even under Israeli law. He says changes to religious practice will not involve coercion, but the agreement allows businesses to decline service “because of a religious belief,” which a member of his party has anticipated could extend to declining service to LGBTQ people.

Netanyahu has alienated the American left with his relentless attacks on its preference for a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he perceives as dangerous and naive. (He also differs from them on how to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.) He has instead cultivated a base on the right through close ties with the Republican Party and among evangelicals, made possible in part because he has long espoused the values traditional conservatives hold dear, including free markets and a united robust Western stance against extremism and terrorism.

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

“Traditional conservatives are much closer to the Bushes, and Jim Baker and those sorts of folks,” he said, referring to the two former presidents and the secretary of state under the late George H. W. Bush.

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the op-ed was likely written at Netanyahu’s behest with those conservatives in mind.

“The Wall Street Journal piece was designed to appeal to traditional conservatives,” he said. “It was designed to send a message to the American public writ large that the way in which Smotrich and perhaps [Itamar] Ben Gvir have been described is based on past utterances and not necessarily their 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 incoming government “a significant threat to the future of Israel” because of the extremist positions Smotrich and other partners have embraced, including the annexation of the West Bank, restrictions on non-Orthodox and non-Jewish citizens, diminishing the independence of the courts, reforming the Law of Return that would render ineligible huge chunks of Diaspora Jewry, and anti-LGBTQ measures.

Smotrich in his op-ed casts the changes not as radical departures from democratic norms but as tweaks that would align Israel more with U.S. values. He said he would pursue a “broad free-market policy” as finance minister. He likened religious reforms to the Supreme Court decision that allowed Christian service providers to decline work from LGBTQ couples.

“For example, arranging for a minuscule number of sex-separated beaches, as we propose, scarcely limits the choices of the majority of Israelis who prefer mixed beaches,” Smotrich wrote. “It simply offers an option to others.”

In the West Bank, Smotrich said, his finance ministry would promote the building of infrastructure and employment which would benefit Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinians alike. “This doesn’t entail changing the political or legal status of the area.”

Such salves contradict the stated aims of the new government’s coalition agreement, Anshel Pfeffer, a Netanyahu biographer and analyst for Haaretz said in a Twitter thread picking apart Smotrich’s op-ed.

“Smotrich says his policy doesn’t mean changing the political or legal status of the occupied territories while 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 at the composition of the incoming government was premature.

“I suspect that the vast mass of people will maintain the support that they have for Israel because it hasn’t got anything to do with the passing of one government to another and has everything to do with the principle that Israel is a pro-American democracy in a region that’s pretty important,” she said.

That said, Pletka said, the changes in policy embraced by Smotrich and his cohort could alienate Americans should they become policy.

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

Pletka said Netanyahu’s stated ambition to expand the 2020 Abraham Accords to peace with Saudi Arabia would likely inhibit plans by Smotrich to annex the West Bank. In the summer of 2020, the last time Netanyahu planned annexation, the United Arab Emirates, one of the four Arab Parties to the Abraham Accords, threatened to pull out unless Netanyahu pulled back — which he did.

“It’s not just the relationship with the United States,” she said. “This might alienate their new friends in the Gulf, which, at the end of the day, may actually have more serious consequences.”

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

“They’re joining me, I’m not joining them,” he said earlier this month. “I’ll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel. I won’t let anybody do anything to LGBT [people] or to deny our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that.”

Zakheim said that Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, from 1996 to 1999 and then from 2009 to 2021, has proven chops at steering rangy coalitions — but there are two key differences now.

Netanyahu wants his coalition partners to pass a law that would effectively end his trial for criminal fraud, and so they exercise unprecedented leverage over him. Additionally, Netanyahu in the past has faced the greatest pressure from haredi Orthodox parties, who are susceptible to suasion by funding their impoverished sector. That’s not true of his new ideologically driven partners.

“If you look at his past governments, he has really never been forced into real policy decisions  by those to the right of him,” Zekheim said. “Now he’s got a problem because these 15 or so seats of those to his right are interested in policy, not just in money.”

Makovsky said Netanyahu appears to be leaving behind a conservatism that was sympathetic to the outlook of its American counterpart.

“His success has been that he’s a stabilizer. He’s risk-averse. He’s focused on the prosperity of the country, with high-tech success. He’s the one to be seen as the tenacious guardian against Iranian nuclear influence,” he said. “And those are things people could relate to. Now,  it just seems like he’s just throwing the playbook out the window.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief

JTA

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