Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under mounting pressure Thursday to speak out against US President Donald Trump’s response to the racially charged violence and anti-Semitic outpouring in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Netanyahu’s near-silence on the march staged by anti-Semitic white nationalists — and Trump’s assertion that “both sides” were responsible for the violence — appears to reflect the Israeli leader’s desire to remain in the good graces of the embattled president.
But Netanyahu’s reluctance to speak out on such an important issue has set him apart from the growing ranks of Israeli leaders who have been outspoken in their anger, and risks alienating Jewish American leaders already estranged by certain Israeli policies.
A growing chorus of opposition politicians, commentators and even coalition partners has urged Netanyahu to take a stronger stance, even at the risk of antagonizing the president.
Trump has acknowledged there were some “very bad people” at Saturday’s rally, where a woman was killed when a car slammed into a crowd of counter-protesters. But he also said there were “very fine people” on both sides. The president’s equation of extremist hate groups and left-wing demonstrators brought condemnation from across the American political spectrum.
Though Netanyahu, who views himself as a leader of world Jewry, is ordinarily quick to rail against anti-Semitism, he waited three days to react to the violence in Charlottesville with a relatively tepid statement on Twitter.
“Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred,” he tweeted, avoiding any mention of the president or Charlottesville. No such statement was issued in Hebrew, the state’s official language and the first language of most Israelis.
Netanyahu’s spokesman David Keyes said the prime minister’s statement was “unequivocal,” adding that he didn’t expect any further comment.
“I think he made his view on the repugnancy of any neo-Nazism abundantly clear,” Keyes said.
After clashing with former US president Barack Obama for eight years, Netanyahu welcomed the election of Trump, and he has worked to cultivate a strong relationship with the White House. Trump was warmly welcomed during a brief visit to Israel in May.
Israeli newspapers devoted front-page coverage to Trump’s comments on Thursday, with top-selling paper Yedioth Ahronoth running a photo of him and the headline “Disgrace.”
Some commentators, however, pointed out that freesheet Israel Hayom, owned by Trump backer Sheldon Adelson, buried the story deep inside the paper.
Sima Kadmon of Yedioth wrote Thursday that after Netanyahu turned Trump “into the greatest friend of Israel in history — how can Netanyahu now issue a condemnation and talk about an anti-Semitic and racist president?”
Immediately after Saturday’s march, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, said the waving of Nazi flags and symbols was not only offensive to American Jews, but also disrespected the memory of American soldiers who died fighting the Nazis during World War II.
“The leaders of the US must condemn and denounce the displays of anti-Semitism seen over the past few days,” Bennett said.
On Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin sent a letter to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations expressing shock that “the most vicious symbol of anti-Semitism” was being paraded in American streets. “I know that the great nation of the United States of America and its leaders will know how to face this difficult challenge,” Rivlin said.
On Thursday, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Jewish Home) said Israel “must not stammer or hesitate in the face of anti-Semitism,” and leveled a veiled criticism of Netanyahu, saying “apparently some don’t want to enrage Trump.”
Opposition politicians have been more strident and open in their criticism of Trump.
“When it comes to racism, anti-Semitism and Nazism, there aren’t two equal sides — there’s good and there’s bad. Period,” said Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and current senior Knesset member from the opposition Zionist Union faction. She said Thursday that it seemed Netanyahu’s silence stems from his fear of angering Trump.
Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich, a former opposition leader, came out swinging against Netanyahu for not speaking out against Trump.
“And you, prime minister of the Jewish people in their land, who warns us about the Holocaust every Monday and Thursday, with overdoses of fear and arrogance and weeks of ‘Never Again,’ what about you?” Yachimovich wrote on Facebook.
Opposition party Yesh Atid’s chairman, Yair Lapid, pointedly said in reference to Trump’s comments that “there aren’t two sides.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak said, “an Israeli leader should have said within six hours our position as Jews, as Israelis, as brothers of a large community, the American Jewish community, including in Charlottesville, who live under threat.”
Netanyahu’s Facebook and Twitter feeds bore no mention of Charlottesville amid the slew of photos of the prime minister and his wife arm-in-arm on their vacation on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Netanyahu’s son Yair, however, who has a close relationship with his father, caused a public outcry when he appeared to parrot Trump’s sentiments. He wrote a Facebook post Wednesday saying the “neo nazis scums in Virginia” are a dying breed, but left-wing anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter groups, which he said hate Israel “just as much,” are “getting stronger and stronger and becoming super dominant in American universities and public life.”
American Jewish leaders have expressed deep disappointment with Trump. But if Netanyahu continues to remain quiet, that disappointment could quickly spread to him as well. Leaders of liberal Jewish groups, who represent the vast majority of American Jews, are already at odds with the Israeli government over issues such as egalitarian prayer and recognition of religious conversions.
Rabbi Thomas Gutherz, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel of Charlottesville, said he has been too preoccupied with the events in his community to pay attention to the news in Israel. But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, the largest American synagogue movement, said the prime minister “did harm to the cause of Israel and the cause of the Jewish people by having such a delayed reaction.”
Jacobs said he was particularly surprised by Netanyahu’s slow response. “Three days went by without a full-throated condemnation. It was quite distressing,” Jacobs said.
“He does not want to alienate Trump,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. But in the process, Gilboa said, Netanyahu is pushing American Jews further away.
Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank said the Israeli government should be expected to respond to such events as a state founded as a “safe haven” for Jews.
“You know we always have the Holocaust on our minds, so you take this and you see that Jews are attacked somewhere,” Rahat said.
But he said of Netanyahu that “I think that his concerns are his relationship with Trump.”
For Abraham Diskin, an emeritus political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Netanyahu has no choice but to be “cautious.”
“You have to choose your fights,” he said.
“You cannot fight on every issue. You cannot clash with someone who is that important to Israel on issues like that.”
Whether Netanyahu could see a wider political backlash at home over the issue is an open question.
For Rahat, denunciation of such anti-Semitism is part of the “consensus” in Israel and opposition figures “can clearly use it against” Netanyahu.
Diskin said, however, that he believed most Israelis would not focus on the issue for long.
“Altogether, I think the vast majority of people will not remember the issue a week from now,” he said.