The Jerusalem Post

The fragility of Israel’s image abroad - analysis

 Israelis block the Ayalon highway and clash with Police in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul on March 23, 2023.  (photo credit: ERIK MARMOR/FLASH90)
Israelis block the Ayalon highway and clash with Police in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul on March 23, 2023.
(photo credit: ERIK MARMOR/FLASH90)

Someday, the judicial overhaul battle will be behind us.

Someday, the fury and contentiousness characterizing this struggle will be a thing of the past. Life will return to normal, and Israel will go back to dealing with the major challenges it has dealt with for the last 75 years – namely, its survival as a Jewish democratic state in a hostile neighborhood.

This transformation could happen if both sides of the judicial reform debate somehow rise above themselves and agree on a compromise. It could also happen if this government collapses and a new coalition takes over.

Or it might happen when this government completes its term in 2026, bringing in a new government and quite possibly a new prime minister.

Irrespective of the scenario, sooner or later, judicial reform – and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – will cease being this country’s defining issue. Rather, the old issues that never die – Iran, the Palestinians, terrorism – will again come to the fore.


And when that happens, Israel will want and need the goodwill of the United States and American Jewry to help fend off those challenges. This goodwill has been painstakingly built up for years but now faces erosion because of our own actions.

Netanyahu began his trip to the US on Monday on a decidedly wrong foot when he said that those protesters against the judicial reform expected to demonstrate outside the UN during his speech on Friday – and who are expected to follow him throughout his six-day stay in the US – have aligned themselves with the PLO and Iran.

 A sign reading ''Save Israel from Netanyahu'' is seen at a protest against the government's judicial reform, in Jerusalem, on July 23, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A sign reading ''Save Israel from Netanyahu'' is seen at a protest against the government's judicial reform, in Jerusalem, on July 23, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

“This is, I think, the 12th time that I am going to appear at the UN as prime minister; there have always been demonstrations in favor of Israel and against Israel,” he said before taking off. “But this time we are seeing demonstrations against Israel by people who have joined forces with the PLO, Iran, and others,” he said.

They haven’t, of course. This was an unwise, hyperbolic comment that should never have been said. It ridiculously conflates opposition to Netanyahu with being an enemy of Israel.

Also, when this saga is over, Netanyahu and the State of Israel will want those protesters – Israelis living in America and American Jews – to continue supporting the state, and to identify and feel a connection to it. That isn’t something cultivated by saying they have joined forces with Israel’s worst enemies.


Netanyahu realized the error of his remarks and – in mid-flight – had his office issue a clarification, something he very rarely does. He didn’t really mean that those “Israelis” protesting him in the US had allied themselves with Iran and the PLO, the clarification read. Rather, what the prime minister really meant was that when they demonstrate against him while he will be speaking Friday at the UN, they will be “demonstrating at the same time as supporters of the PLO and BDS, which has never happened before.”

However, this clarification had its own issues. Firstly, Netanyahu’s initial comments did not specifically refer to Israelis protesting, infuriating some in the mainstream US Jewish community who planned to protest his visit and felt they were being branded as an enemy by the prime minister.

Secondly, this is not the first time that Israelis or Jews will be protesting against an Israeli prime minister abroad. Netanyahu’s annual speeches at the UN, as well as speeches given at AIPAC in the past, have always attracted a smattering of protests by members of fringe, far-left Jewish groups – some of them undoubtedly Israelis – or a handful of fanatically anti-Zionist Hassidim.

Outside of the odd news photo of these protests taken for its curiosity value – “Look at the Jews demonstrating against the leader of the Jewish state” – these protests had little resonance.

What is different this time is that the protests include people in the mainstream, both the Israeli and American Jewish mainstream, and by their mere numbers, they and their message will get a lot of attention.And here is where things get tricky. They, too, need to know there will be a day after the judicial overhaul and craft their messages accordingly.

They need to know that what they say now about Netanyahu and the state will not automatically be erased from memory once this whole saga ends. This problem has bedeviled the protest movement for some time – such as when former Mossad head Tamir Pardo, a caustic critic of Netanyahu, said that Israel is practicing apartheid, words that will be used against Israel by its critics and enemies for years to come.

Last week, as a promo of sorts, the anti-reform protesters in New York projected a massive sign on the UN building that read “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu.”

The problem with that message blasted abroad is that it risks undermining Netanyahu’s credibility on the international stage. The problem is that this same Netanyahu, who still happens to be the democratically elected leader of the state, will be standing up in front of the world and making arguments against the Iranians, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Do supporters of Israel – do Israelis abroad, or American Jews – really not want the world to believe him when he presents intelligence information regarding Iran’s nuclear progress? If Netanyahu turns to Congress after a future confrontation in Gaza in search of emergency funding for the Iron Dome, do they really want the members of Congress to think that this is a man who cannot be believed?

There are those in Congress who would like to vote against military aid to Israel, and those in the Administration who are keen on forging a deal with the Iranians, who could use the slogan “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu” in a way that doesn’t hurt Netanyahu, but rather the state as a whole.

It is one thing to protest against Netanyahu’s policies and his government; it is another to protest in a way that could ultimately hurt the state’s interests. Tearing down Netanyahu completely – saying that nothing he says can be believed – could have dire consequences if, in a time of an external emergency, he needs to engage with world leaders who may say, “His own people say he is a liar, why should we believe him?”

Protests come to America

The protests against Netanyahu abroad are meant to make the prime minister feel uncomfortable wherever he goes, that things cannot go on as normal. The primary audience is a domestic Israeli one.

However, another message is being sent by some of these protesters: apply pressure on Israel to save it from itself. But that is a slippery slope. If some American Jews and Israelis legitimize – even invite – US pressure now to “save Israel from itself,” what is to keep another administration from using that precedent in the future regarding matters that most Israelis don’t feel there should be outside intervention?

If you open the door to outside intervention now, it will be difficult to try and slam it shut later.

There is an argument that says that the pro-democracy demonstrations are serving Israel well, showing the world that Israel cares passionately about democracy and human rights. But it has to be done carefully. People’s emotions don’t turn on a dime, especially if the issues are not that well understood abroad.

It is not as if you inoculate people abroad now with the notion that Israel is sliding toward a dictatorship, and then tomorrow, when this is all over, those same people will once again feel a strong connection to the state.

Much has been written about the growing distance between American Jews and Israel, which began long before the judicial reform was ever launched. Painting Israel in very bleak colors will only make those Diaspora Jews already distant from Israel feel further alienated.

There will be a day after the judicial reform. As a result, those protesting the prime minister in the US should not go overboard in portraying Israel in an overly grim way because that image will be tough to erase even when the political reality in Israel changes, as it inevitably will.