Only toward the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the US, quietly and secretly, did it become known that he held a meeting with the leaders of the Jewish community there. The list of participants invited to the Israeli Consulate building in New York was not published. By comparison, two years ago, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with hundreds of representatives of the community in an open hall, and the event was broadcast live on social networks and in the media. Netanyahu's meeting last week looks and sounds like a forced departure. Check the box and move on. A request for a similar meeting submitted by the Jewish community in San Francisco was rejected by his office. He avoided a large event because he rightly fears that it is not possible to control what happens in crowded meetings.
The severe rift between Israel and American Jewry is at full throttle. This fact has a deep, strategic meaning, not only for the Jewish people, but also for the vital axis of Israel-US relations, which Netanyahu values and considers crucial. This reality is the result of long-term processes on both sides of the ocean. Israel is moving to the right, and the current government is an extreme expression of this. On the other hand, American Jewry is largely in the center-left. It votes for the Democratic Party (75%), and its values are liberal-progressive. When ministers and Knesset members propose to erase a Palestinian town, encourage illegal settlements and protect Jewish terrorists, they lose American Jewry.
The turning point was in 2016-2017, formative years that highlighted the rift. The arrival of the "Western Wall Mixed Prayer Plan" gave the Reform and Conservative movements in the US an egalitarian space, albeit small in size, where women and men could pray together according to their tradition. In addition, there was talk of a joint entrance to the "Two Walls" and a joint council to manage the place. In a word - equality. Millions of American Jews have been waiting for this arrangement for many years, but as great as the joy, so deep is the disappointment.
A year after the achievement of the plan, the Israeli government unilaterally withdrew from the plan and terminated it. Even the Bennet-Lapid government, which I was a member of and in which most of its members supported the outline, did not know how to implement it. This caused dismay to the major movements of US Jewry.
The surprising thing is that Netanyahu, who knows the Jewish community and its importance very well, invested very little in bridging the rift. Inspired by former US Ambassador Ron Dermer, Israel preferred the support of the evangelical community and its political power as a substitute. This was a historic mistake. There is no substitute for the long-standing, emotional connection between Israel and American Jews. Although they are less than 2% of the US population, they have exceptional influence, status and power in government, society, finance, culture and media.
To the credit of the Jewish community, it has refrained from publicly speaking out against Netanyahu. Only a few American Jews joined the demonstrations by Israelis in New York over the weekend. However, recently the silent protest has been expanding: they are sending letters and delivering messages, but with a low public profile. That is why Netanyahu rightly feared the meeting. As happened to him recently during his visits to Italy, France and England, he knew that this was a stage for airing the differences of opinion and highlighting the protest against the judicial overhaul, the treatment of the Palestinians and the anti-liberal agenda of his government. Prime ministers come and go, and the Jewish connection is supposed to continue, but in the meantime the damage is accumulating and will remain for the long term.
The "spoiler" for the future has arrived. Netanyahu is trying to promote, under the wings of the US leadership, the normalization arrangement with Saudi Arabia. This complex move requires the support of two-thirds of the US Senate (67 of its 100 members), which means a broad, almost bipartisan agreement, which includes all the Democrats. However, the link to them passes through the Jewish community and its activists. AIPAC, the Jewish lobby in Washington, knows very well that without the entire Jewish community behind the plan it will have a hard time delivering the goods.
Netanyahu will very quickly remember that his grand plan also depends on American Jews. This is not a matter of history, nostalgia or promises regarding the Western Wall. American Jewry is an asset that Netanyahu depends on and needs.