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Netanyahu uncharacteristically subdued on Trump’s remarks


    President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint statement at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem in May.

JERUSALEM >> The front-page headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, a popular Hebrew newspaper, above a large photograph of President Donald Trump, summed up the feelings of many Israelis in one word: “Shame.”

It was a reference to Trump’s defiant attempts this week to apportion equal blame to the “alt-left” for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend and the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who instigated the protests.

It also contrasted with the unusual reticence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a powerful orator who often communicates directly through video clips, scathing Facebook posts and statements from his office, but who has remained uncharacteristically tongue-tied about Trump’s remarks.

The piercing images of the torchlight march at the University of Virginia, with its Nazi symbols and chants of “Jews will not replace us,” reverberated across Israel, the homeland of, and a refuge for, Jews that was established in the wake of the Holocaust.

In a message of solidarity with the American Jewish community, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel wrote, “The very idea that in our time we would see a Nazi flag — perhaps the most vicious symbol of anti-Semitism — paraded in the streets of the world’s greatest democracy, and Israel’s most cherished and greatest ally, is almost beyond belief.”

The manifestations of hatred prompted condemnations from across Israel’s political spectrum, but only a minimalist response from Netanyahu, who finds himself caught between his vow to represent all the Jews of the world and his friendship with the testy U.S. president.

It took Netanyahu three days to respond at all to the events in Charlottesville, writing on the prime minister’s official Twitter account Tuesday, with a marked lack of specificity and 40 characters to spare, “Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred.”

And he has remained silent about Trump’s remarks, which U.S. Jewish organizations have described as deeply troubling.

Critics accuse Netanyahu of further alienating American Jewry, already upset by a perceived surrender to his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners at the expense of his relations with the more liberal Jewish communities abroad.

“After he turned Trump into the best thing that has happened to the Jews in 5,000 years, into the greatest friend of Israel in history, how can Netanyahu now issue a condemnation and talk about an anti-Semitic and racist president?” Sima Kadmon, a political commentator, wrote in her weekly column in Yedioth Ahronoth, a day after the paper’s “Shame” headline. Kadmon described Netanyahu’s silence about Trump’s remarks as “tacit support.”

Others were harsher in their assessments. Stav Shaffir, a legislator from the center-left Zionist Union, wrote of Netanyahu in the liberal newspaper Haaretz this week, “The man has lost any semblance of a moral compass.”

Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said in a statement, “There aren’t two sides. When neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville and scream slogans against Jews and in support of white supremacy, the condemnation has to be unambiguous.”

After eight years of tensions with the Obama administration over policy issues including the nuclear accord with Iran and Israel’s settlement activity, Netanyahu celebrated the election of Trump and embraced him as the greatest friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Some of Netanyahu’s Israeli allies have defended his reserved response as in keeping with diplomatic norms.

“It is an established custom in Israel that Israeli prime ministers will not be overtly critical of the president of the United States,” said Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the United States from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party.

In a telephone interview, Shoval denounced all expressions of neo-Nazism as abhorrent and said nothing could be equated with it. But, he added, Netanyahu, “as prime minister, has to take all factors into consideration,” and “does not have to come out with public statements.”

Trump even received some backing for his “two sides to the story” approach, including from Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s elder son, who weighed in with a blunt post on his Facebook page denouncing the far left anti-fascist groups and the Black Lives Matter movement as “thugs.”

“The neo nazis scums in Virginia hate me and my country,” he wrote in English. “But they belong to the past. Their breed is dying out. However the thugs of Antifa and BLM who hate my country (and America too in my view) just as much are getting stronger and stronger and becoming super dominant in American universities and public life.”

Oren Hazan, a Likud parliamentarian, chimed in on Twitter, writing that “Trump is right. Violence and extremism from any side is prohibited and must be condemned!” In a subsequent post he clarified that there were “no worse people than the neo-Nazis,” while reiterating that nobody was authorized to take the law into their own hands.

This is not the first time that Netanyahu has been willing to give leaders a pass. In a bizarre episode last month, ahead of a visit by Netanyahu to Hungary, Israel retracted a statement issued by the Israeli ambassador to Hungary calling on Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party to halt a poster campaign against George Soros, the Jewish-American billionaire, after the Hungarian Jewish community complained that it was fueling anti-Semitism.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a clarification deploring expressions of anti-Semitism in general, but legitimizing and supporting the campaign against Soros, who has financed left-wing causes critical of the Israeli government.

Other prominent Israeli politicians and bodies preceded Netanyahu in condemning the violence in Charlottesville and the response of Trump, if not by name.

Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, said he was “deeply concerned by the expressions of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and hatred exhibited at the neo-Nazi rally,” adding in a statement, “I am horrified by the death of a protester at the hands of one of the marchers. These is no place for such hate speech or violence in any democratic society.”

Naftali Bennett, the leader of the far-right party The Jewish Home and minister of education and diaspora affairs, said the “unhindered waving of Nazi flags and symbols” also disrespected the millions of U.S. soldiers who died to protect the world from the Nazis.

“The leaders of the U.S. must condemn and denounce the displays of anti-Semitism,” he added.

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