Israeli leaders are shooting themselves in their PR foot. There is something wrong with the tone and language of political debate in Israel. It would seem from the events of recent days –– in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, into the governing coalition and thereby replacing Moshe Yaalon as defense minister –– that Israeli political leaders have no idea how to conduct appropriate political discourse. Instead, in their seething anger at their colleagues or opponents, they have been engaging in abusive, emotional, inaccurate and baseless language that will prove a gift to Palestinian Arab Israel-bashers, pro-BDS anti-Semites, Israel-hating journalists and other Jew-hating propagandists.
While this list is not exhaustive, it’s enough to give an idea of what is going on:
• Tzipi Livni, the former opposition leader, Kadima leader and foreign minister, now a Zionist Union MK, described the government as “evil.”
• Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor opposition, who had just ended talks to join the Netanyahu government, lambasted the prime minister thus: “You are beholden to the most extremist elements and we will fight you and them.”
• Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned in recent days against a “hostile takeover of the Israeli government by dangerous elements” and of Israel being “infected by the seeds of fascism.”
• Israel Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan stated in a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech that he is frightened by “the abhorrent processes that took place in Europe, and Germany in particular, some 70, 80 or 90 years ago, and finding manifestations of these processes here among us in 2016.”
• Yaalon, normally a careful and understated politician, in leaving the government felt it necessary to describe what is happening in Israel as “manifestations of extremism, violence and racism,” which he says are even “trickling into the armed forces.”
Accordingly, Israel’s enemies can now use against Israel the absurd, hysterical words of prominent Israeli officials that Israel is a racist, evil, extreme and fascist state verging on Nazism.
These are emotional and ridiculous political utterances –– not substantive, factual statements. Israel is a rule of law, human rights-observing society; its armed forces are the most painstakingly upright and ethical in the world; and its Arab minority is enfranchised and Israel’s highest leaders are accountable to the law. Arabs, Christians and gays have full and equal rights, far different from the human right-abusing situation in Arab states in the Middle East. But these utterances will be remembered and used, not by Israelis participating in heated Israeli internal debates, but by external defamers, who have now been given rich source material.
At a time when Israel is fighting the anti-Semitism of BDS, these officials lend fuel to that movement, as well as to the increasingly virulent hostility of journalists and of many nations and the United Nations.
It is no secret that many people in Israeli public life, not least Netanyahu, have disagreements with Lieberman. His contentious ideas include creating a Palestinian state that incorporates Israeli Arabs in neighboring border areas of Israel, while incorporating Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria that border Israel into the Jewish state. And some are critical of his call for the death penalty for terrorists and his call for destroying the terrorist group Hamas, whose charter calls for murdering every Jew, while having launched tens of thousands of missiles against Israeli civilians. Isn’t the United States waging a campaign to destroy the so-called Islamic State, even though it operates elsewhere, whereas Hamas operates on Israel’s doorstep?
Some of these ideas are open to debate, but so are most everyone else’s. Israel’s predicament is not a simple one and no one has advanced a political proposal for peace that doesn’t incorporate difficult or controversial ideas.
The proper way for Israeli leaders to deal with views with which they disagree is to explain to the public why they believe they will not lead to peace, and to persuade them that they have better ideas that will –– not to malign the country and some of its leaders with ugly and inaccurate name-calling.
How painfully bizarre that some of these very same Israeli leaders ignore Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ alliance with Hamas or his speeches and actions inciting anti-Semitic violence and support of BDS; instead, they call him a “moderate,” and use inappropriate, baseless and vitriolic terms about their own leaders and government.
These senior Israeli figures have been unintentionally benefiting the work of the Jewish state’s deligitimizers and enemies. Imagine the boost the BDS campaign –– whose raison d’être is defaming and ending the State of Israel –– will get from quoting these words for their own purposes.
Critics of the Israeli government would be well-advised to pause to consider the use to which their words can be put and to adjust their language accordingly. It is a basic test of public relations prudence that these leading Israel figures failed this past week. As the Torah teaches: Words are so powerful a mountain can hang by the thread of a single word.
Morton A. Klein is president of the Zionist Organization of America.