There are two true things about Israel today that he feels compelled to put on the public record, Abraham Foxman of Bergen County said.
The first of these things is so true that until now it simply went without saying, but now it must be said. Israel is not a dictatorship.
And the second is true now but would have been unthinkable until very recently. Israel still is a democracy.
But unless the two sides that now are locked in a bitter stalemate manage to find some comprise, he’s afraid that the nearly unbearable pressure will explode into violence, Mr. Foxman said.
Such a fear is even more powerful coming from Mr. Foxman, a committed constant optimist. As a child Holocaust survivor rediscovered and reclaimed by his death-camp- surviving parents in postwar Poland, the retired very longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League has been to Israel hundreds of times and knows its leaders well. Mr. Foxman is as capable of being blithely negative about Israel as he is of jumping up into the air, spouting wings, and flying away.
In other words, any negativity about Israel from Mr. Foxman is startling.
In fact, Mr. Foxman couches his carefully worked, evenhanded critique around an Abraham Joshua Heschel quote that he loves. “I am optimist — against my better judgment,” Mr. Foxman said, channeling
He bases his critique and his qualified hope on what he saw on his trip to Israel — he and his wife, Golda, returned from two and a half weeks there, their first visit back since covid started more than three years ago — and his talks with the country’s leaders, many of whom he’s known for years.
The result of his meeting with such Israeli political and military luminaries as Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, “whom I’ve known for 40 years,” Mr. Foxman said, as well as with President Yitzhak Herzog — Bougie, as Mr. Foxman and hundreds of thousands of other Israelis call him — finance minister Avigdor Lieberman; the agricultural overseer, Avi Dichter; former politician and power broker Tzipi Livni; former American and former Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer; Israel’s national security advisor, Tzachi Hanegbi, and Russian refusenik-turned-Israeli-politician and beloved symbol of Israel, Natan Sharansky, among many other well-known Israelis “was that I talked to a lot of people on both sides,” Mr. Foxman reported.
“As a result, I have mixed feelings about what’s going on there — very mixed feelings — but at the bottom I am very concerned, but I didn’t see anyone being willing to compromise.”
The issue is that Netanyahu, whose government is generally acknowledged as being farther to the right than any other Israeli government since the country was founded, is working to change the status and power of Israel’s Supreme Court. Because Israel has no constitution, the court functions as the only approximation of check or balance, and the right-wing government wants to strip it of some of its control. Israelis and visitors have flooded the streets of major cities protesting this move since it was announced months ago.
“On the one hand, this is an extraordinary display of citizens standing up against an assault on democracy,” Mr. Foxman said of the overwhelmingly nonviolent protestors who show up week after week to make their position clear. But still, the government they are protesting is not a dictatorship, he contended.
The two sides remain far apart.
“There really is an assault on democracy,” he said, repeating the phrase because it is strong and clear. “Just as there is in the United States and in France. But throwing around the word dictatorship — that’s wrong. Thousands of people are marching in the streets. The newspapers say what they want to say. The internet is full of debate. I was in the Knesset, and it was alive with debate — vibrant, angry debate, and that is an act of democracy. But it clearly is an assault on the system.
“On the one side, there is the fear of the change that the government is proposing, which is the assault on democracy. On the other, the government is convinced that their election victory gives them the right to pass legislation, even if a significant minority is unhappy.”
After all, he said, “Likud did win the election.” Yes, it was very close, but “it is their parliamentary system, and in that system they won. They put together a government that now controls 64 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.”
He’s struck by the people who go to the rallies, and who speak at them. “The speakers tend to be center and center right,” he said. “Lefties march, but the speakers tend to be former generals, former heads of Mossad and of the security services, former ministers of justice. It’s a fascinating dimension.”
To a large extent, Mr. Foxman said, “the demonstrations are as much about Netanyahu as they are about democracy.”
He thinks that his old friend, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, back in office now for the third time, “miscalculated on a couple of things. One is his ability to control the extremists. In the early days,” soon after this government was voted into power and Netanyahu swept back in at its head in late December, “he said ‘my hand will be on the wheel.’ I think that he believed that. But he was wrong. They” — the extremists — “had the power to bring down the government. It is a blackmail power.”
Netanyahu’s second miscalculation, according to Mr. Foxman, was “that he misread the Israeli public. I think that many people have.” His own assumptions about Israelis, which he said is similar to many other observers and is based on his own stays there “over the last 75 years” — Mr. Foxman is 83 now, and his fervent Zionism is lifelong — “is that they are apathetic. In emergencies, they sacrifice. They do whatever is necessary. But in between — there have been so much corruption, so many crises, so much lack of leadership — and they just lived with it. I don’t think that Bibi” — that’s Netanyahu — “or his party could imagine this kind of outcry from the people.
“Now he’s in a situation where he must control his extremists because he can’t fire them. In my conversation with him, I said, ‘I understand. I’m a big boy. I know that if you fire them, the government will fall. But condemn their speech! Condemn their racism! Distance yourself from their hate. Rein them in. Curtail their authority. Establish consequences for the actions.
“Otherwise, their extremism and racism is a blemish on you and on Israel.”
There are striking parallels between Netanyahu’s situation in Israel, where his retention of power is dependent on maintaining the loyalty of elected politicians generally seen outside their own power bases as bad actors — such politicians as finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and deputy prime minister Yariv Levin are the most prominent — and Kevin McCarthy, Republican Speaker of the House, who constantly must placate his caucus lest its most extreme members vote to vacate his position.
None of this is happening in a vacuum.
“While this is going on, there is a military complex situation,” Mr. Foxman said. “On one day we were there, there were attacks on Israel on four fronts — Gaza, Hezbollah, West Bank, and Syria. Israel’s enemies are testing, testing, testing Israel’s capability. That’s because Israel’s deterrence relies on two factors — its military capacity, strength, and intelligence, and the psychological factor.
“If it is strong, determined, and holds together, and Arab leaders and terrorist groups can see it, that’s one thing. But they know that if there are 100,000 people in the streets, the government is in trouble. They see weakness.
“So what’s the solution?” Mr. Foxman asked rhetorically.
“There needs to be an election, but I don’t see one,” he said. In Israel’s parliamentary system, the next election must be by 2026 but could be sooner. “The polls are showing that Bibi’s government is losing, and that’s a negative incentive. Everybody talks about a unity government, but it won’t emerge until after an election. There’s too little trust. Too little cooperation.”
If five members of the coalition were to leave it, the government would fall and new elections would follow, but that’s unlikely to happen, Mr. Foxman said. That did happen with the last coalition government, which fell when one member “was seduced to leave. But the reality now is that these people will not vote themselves out of office, because they know that they’ll never get back in. So I don’t see this government falling for a while, because there is no incentive, unless something horrific happens.”
He also met with Benny Gantz, the retired Army general who’s a member of the Knesset now and the official head of the opposition. “I said to him, ‘Everybody looks up to you as the savior. You’re the man on the white horse.’ And he said to me, ‘I tried that once. I entered a unity effort, but it didn’t work. I got hurt.
“‘I am the only standing alternative to him in the next election, and that is the role that I will take,’” Mr. Foxman reported Mr. Gantz as saying.
Who else is there?
“The most credible, most liked politicians in Israel today are Bougie, the president – but his powers are limited; he has some moral authority, but that is not enough — Yoav Gallant, the minister of defense – who Bibi tried to fire but couldn’t — and General Ganz.” But none of them are going to challenge Netanyahu.
And then there are the others, the politicians who Mr. Foxman fears may become the face of Israel.
“I told the prime minster and leaders of the coalition that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are a stain on the government of Israel,” Mr. Foxman said. “I told the prime minister that I know that he is not a racist, or a messianic leader, but Ben-Gvir and Smotrich speak in his name, and although he can’t fire them, unless he condemns them and distances himself from their rhetoric, it will continue to isolate him from decent people.
“I told the opposition leaders that they have to find a compromise. They did lose the election, and they only way to move the issues they care about is to find that compromise.
“Rejecting the results of the election reminds me of what happened here.” He’s talking about the attempts to overthrow the results of the 2020 president election, beginning with attacks on the legitimacy of the voting process, that culminated in the insurrection on January 6.
“The answer is to compromise, not to think that you can overthrow it. That is what troubles me. That the lack of desire to find a compromise will lead, God forbid, to violence.”
Compromise is the only answer, Mr. Foxman repeated forcefully.
“There is no word for accountability in Hebrew,” he added. “Do you know how to say accountability in Hebrew? Accountability.” That’s what the system lacks, and that’s what the fight is over.
He ends by emphasizing, as he does throughout, why he cares so much, and how that depth of love he feels is shared by so many American Jews.
“I’ve had a love affair with Israel for 75 years,” Mr. Foxman said. “That continues, despite all the anxieties and concerns. This is eretz acheret. This is a different place, a place like no other. Nothing has changed my love, appreciation, or respect for Israel. I just hope that the Israelis are as smart as we hope they can be.”