February 27, 2020

Three Questions for the Year Ahead

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a right wing parties meeting on November 20, 2019 in Jerusalem, Israel. Israel may face third election after Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu struggle to form coalition. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The year 2019 was tumultuous. Israel held two elections, with a third coming in March; long-awaited indictments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three separate cases were finally announced; specific plans to annex the Jordan Valley were advanced; and the combustible combination of President Donald Trump, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) made American Jewish politics even more divisive than ever. Some of these issues will be resolved in 2020 while others will not. Here are three large questions looming over the next 12 months.

Will Israeli institutions hold under pressure?

Three elections in the span of less than a year would strain even the healthiest of democracies under the best of circumstances. Add to that the fact that the third Israeli election is likely to result in the same inconclusive deadlock as the first two and you have a recipe for chaos. Factor Netanyahu’s indictments into the mix and you have something truly dangerous.

Netanyahu’s indictments themselves are not the wedge that might crack Israel’s governmental system. It is the various responses surrounding those indictments that make the next year so perilous. Netanyahu has spent two years rallying his troops for a war against Israel’s law enforcement apparatus, asserting that the police who investigated him, the state attorneys whose job it is to prosecute him, the attorney general who decided to indict him, and the judges who will decide his legal fate are all compromised, illegitimate or engaged in a deep state conspiracy to bring him down in a coup. That war is finally here and it may be joined by a high court decision that Netanyahu cannot legally be asked to form a government while under indictment, despite Israel’s relevant Basic Law being clear that a prime minister under indictment need not step down.

There is no moral or political equivalence between Netanyahu whipping up the masses and his most slavish Knesset allies into a lathering froth in an effort to intimidate the law enforcement and judicial systems from doing their jobs, and the judicial system issuing a legal opinion that intrudes on a political matter. The blame for what is taking place begins and ends with Netanyahu for his actions that precipitated the investigations and indictments, and his lack of compunction about burning down the entire house if he cannot reside splendidly within it. But it doesn’t change the fact that a legal decision effectively barring Netanyahu from serving as the next prime minister before he has been convicted of anything may be the spark that ignites the gas that Netanyahu has blown into the sealed space of Israeli politics and society.

Even if none of this comes to pass and Netanyahu is allowed to try to form the next government, it only means that Israel will remain at DEFCON 2 rather than moving to DEFCON 1. No matter how you slice it, a democratic system only works so far as people trust it implicitly. Netanyahu has introduced so much uncertainty with his invective about the fundamental illegitimacy of the efforts to hold him accountable, his vilification of Israel’s Arab citizens and denunciations of any coalitions that include them, and his nakedly transparent insinuations that only he has Israel’s best interests at heart and that any alternatives — be it Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid or Gideon Sa’ar — would sell out the country. At this point, it is a wonder any Israeli voter believes in the sanctity of their vote. Netanyahu spent much of 2019 telling Israelis that nothing they see with their own eyes should be trusted, and 2020 may reveal how much of that message they have absorbed and internalized.

Will Israel heed signals from the U.S. or from everyone else?

In explicitly recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — rather than continuing to implicitly recognize it by not objecting or ever raising the issue — and repudiating the State Department’s four-decades-old opinion that West Bank settlements are inconsistent with international law, the Trump administration laid the groundwork in 2019 for the logical conclusion to this approach, namely giving Israel a green light for formal annexation of parts of the West Bank. As 2019 came to a close, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was giving interviews in which he talked about the fundamental rights that Israelis have to the West Bank and how that should influence the policies of the European Union and countries around the world, while Netanyahu was making videos promising he will get Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and every existing West Bank settlement. It seems that Netanyahu getting an American blessing for annexation is a question not of if but of when.

At the same time, the message from other quarters is becoming harsher. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced in December, after years of deflection, that she believes there is a basis for investigating Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, with part of her evidence being Netanyahu’s frequent and recent pledges to pursue annexation. Before the last meeting between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley annexation plan, while that same month China’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations told the Security Council that China opposes any West Bank annexation or efforts to legalize or expand settlements. In November, Canada reversed its longstanding position of voting against or abstaining on Palestinian self-determination in the U.N. General Assembly and voted in favor during the preliminary vote and then again during the final vote.

The year 2020 may bring Israel to a determinative choice about which path it chooses when it comes to annexation. The Israeli government and its prime minister — whether Netanyahu, Gantz or someone else entirely — could have to decide whether American backing is enough to outweigh international sanctions and prosecutions of Israelis abroad. If the preliminary evidence is any clue, Israel is taking the flashing red lights more seriously than its denunciations of the ICC, U.N. and international opinion would suggest. Following the ICC announcement, the first meeting of the interministerial panel tasked with implementing Jordan Valley annexation was abruptly canceled. 

A legal decision effectively barring Benjamin Netanyahu from serving as the next prime minister before he has been convicted of anything may be the spark that ignites the gas that Netanyahu has blown into the sealed space of Israeli politics and society.

How much worse will the political conflict dividing American Jews become?

It’s been clear for a while that Trump is a nuclear force of fragmentation for American Jews. A not insignificant and vocal minority believes he is history’s greatest president for American Jewish welfare — with Republican Jewish Coalition leader Matt Brooks going so far as to posit recently that Trump is “the strongest defender of the Jewish people ever” — while far more believe that he is a singular threat to American Jewish welfare. One group believes that his support for Israel is ipso facto proof that he cannot do or say anything anti-Semitic, while the other believes the connection between his support for Israel and his repeated insinuations that American Jews’ primary allegiance is to Israel is proof of his anti-Semitism.

Ruth Wisse wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 22 that the response to Trump from American Jews is “confused” — with her first example of Trump’s battle against anti-Semitism being his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — and that Trump’s Zionism inherently outweighs any other arguments that can be employed against him. Meanwhile. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, said of Jewish Holocaust survivor George Soros, “Soros is hardly a Jew. I’m more of a Jew than Soros is. I probably know more about — he doesn’t go to church, he doesn’t go to religion — synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel.” Together, these encapsulate the fundamental division that Trump and his Jewish politics represent — the use of Israel as inoculation against anti-Semitism, and the complete fusion of Israeli interests and American Jewish interests. This, more than anything else, is what is tearing American Jewry apart over Trump, and why some genuinely view him as the first Jewish president while others genuinely view him as an unprecedented affront to Jewish values.


Michael J. Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director, based in Washington, D.C.