As Israeli protesters, including senior army officers, blocked the offices of conservative think tank Kohelet with cement and barbed wire Thursday morning, and as throngs of others attempted to shut down Ben-Gurion airport in an effort to block Prime Minister Netanyahu from departing on a visit to Rome, Amichai Chikli, Israel’s soft-spoken minister of diaspora affairs, spent the day trying to advocate restraint and reconciliation.
And the Biden administration, he said, wasn’t helping.
“It’s a basic issue of acknowledging the sovereignty of a friendly nation,” he said. He was referring to comments by Tom Nides, Washington’s ambassador to Jerusalem, who, last month, took the nearly unprecedented step of commenting directly on internal Israeli politics.
“We’re telling the prime minister, as I tell my kids, pump the brakes,” Nides said. “Slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together.”
Even if you let the intense “patronizing tone of this statement” slide, Chikli said, still ruffled by the ambassador’s equivocation of speaking to Israel’s leader as one would to one’s children, the statement is deeply worrisome. “The protests aren’t about foreign policy or diplomacy or anything like that,” he said. “They’re an internal Israeli political issue, and any foreign ambassador commenting on this issue, but particularly an ambassador of a friendly nation like the United States, is crossing a line.”
Asked if he could surmise what had motivated the ambassador’s choice of words, Chikli didn’t hesitate.
“It’s hard to miss the political directive guiding him,” he said. Chikli cited Sen. Tom Cotton’s speech in Congress earlier this week, which shed light on the revelations that the U.S. was funding some of the key left-wing NGOs instrumental in organizing the recent wave of protests. One example, reported by Lee Smith at Tablet, was $15,000 paid by the State Department for the Movement for Quality Government, a longtime leader in anti-Netanyahu efforts, including the current round of demonstrations.
When I asked Chikli what, precisely, he believed was the ambassador’s political directive, he sighed.
“Look,” he said, “in the United States, you have something called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which curbs the ability of foreign governments to fund domestic political organizations. We want the exact same thing in Israel. That’s all.”
Instead, Chikli lamented, Israelis are seeing an influx of American taxpayer dollars, backed by outward political support from senior administration officials, to help “support an agenda clearly identified with the far left.”
Which, Chikli said, was very bad news for Israel, and not just for reasons of political and diplomatic decorum.
“We have a very sensitive and combustible situation right now,” he said. “People are hurt, people are angry, and our top priorities are to stabilize things and then to pursue the policies we were elected to enact. Blatant American intervention makes both of these aims very, very difficult.”
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.