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Israel reminds us of the perils of ‘Ugly American’ meddling abroad

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer published a book titled “The Ugly American,” which described the failed attempt of the U.S. to help South Eastern Asian countries by changing several aspects of their culture to be more like the United States.

The book was fiction but based on reality, alluding to Americans losing political presence in Southeast Asia because of their failure to understand local culture. The book had a large impact on U.S. policy, which made a turn by creating alternatives such as the Peace Corps to help poor countries without trying to change their culture.

Unfortunately, we witness now an attempt by American libertarian billionaires who are working to change Israel’s culture and society under the “Ugly American” model.

American billionaire Jeff Yass, known in the U.S. as a “GOP megadonor,” is reportedly funding a far-right Israeli think tank, the Kohelet Policy Forum, which apparently aims to reshape the country’s political system.

Very few Israelis have likely heard of the Tikvah Fund, which was created by the late American billionaire financier Sanford Bernstein some 30 years ago, with the apparent goal of changing Israel’s culture to be much more religious and conservative.

The Tikvah Fund along with Kohelet appear to be looking to place a sufficient number of libertarians in government positions, in the judicial system and other high-ranking positions in the public sector of Israel. They worked under the radar until the recent coup on the judicial system became apparent in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

In the last few years, Israel had several elections where Benjamin Netanyahu did not get the majority he hoped for. From June 2021 to December 2022, a different diverse party coalition ruled Israel (quite successfully) and Netanyahu, who is on trial for bribery, breach of trust and fraud likely saw no way out of his trial other than toppling that government and looking to appoint a new attorney general who would cancel his trial.To that end he managed to broker an agreement among a few ultra-right wing small parties and with them he achieved an advantaged in the November 2022 elections. However, his coalition is not that stable and the Religious Zionism extreme right-wing party that became the third largest party in the Knesset, poses an imminent threat for him if they leave his coalition and topple his government. So, he abides by their rules.

There are many problems facing the newly elected government, but the main issue is drastic “reforms” to the judicial system. It seems, what Netanyahu and his coalition are essentially attempting to achieve is “crowning” him as a dictator similar to Urban in Hungary, where the three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial) would be reduced to one. Right now, they are in the height of legislating some draconian laws, while as many as 500,000 citizens in Israel have been demonstrating almost daily for three months with a plan to continue their nonviolent protests until the government pulls back the legislation. This conflict appears to be the worst to happen in Israel since the state was founded and fought the independence war in 1948. The implications of losing its respected judicial system are horrendous in all aspects of life, economic, social, political and more. The government, however, seems determined to destroy the state of Israel as we know it.

There is a lesson to be learned by American billionaires. Libertarianism is completely foreign to the state of Israel that was established as a welfare state. Trying to “proselytize” certain Israelis to be agents of change toward libertarianism is not going to work. And, as Roni Alshiekh — who is the former head of the Israeli Shin Bet, chief of Israel’s police, a graduate of a Yeshiva and is religious Jewish — said in front of 150,000 demonstrators in Tel Aviv, “there is nothing whatsoever in Kohelet’s ideas that relates to Judaism.” Of course, the agent who attempted to bring the new libertarianism to Israel is no one else but Netanyahu, an advocate of the new liberalism who held a conservative conference in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago where the guests were Roger Hertog, former chair of the Tikvah Fund, Elliott Abrams, its current chair, and David Friedman, who as former Trump’s ambassador to Israel has publicly advocated for the settlers. Among the other guests were former United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senate Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnel (R-Ky.), the architect of turning the U.S. liberal supreme court into an ultra-conservative one.

There is, however, a big miscalculation on their part. The allies they found in Israel are the ultra-right wing Religious Zionism Party, who are Messianic and who are estimated to be between  5 and 10 percent of the population. They may adopt Libertarianism as means of potentially getting tons of money from the U.S., but their main mission is to recreate Israel as it was 2,000 years ago. To that end they would annex the West Bank and the least they would likely do is turn the Palestinians into third-rate inhabitants, if not worse, while continuing their aggressive battle against the Palestinians. Their leader, Bezalel Smotrich, who became Israel’s secretary of finance in the current government, said a couple of weeks ago in an open public interview that the town of Huwara should be wiped out. He later claimed that he was misunderstood, despite many similar statements he has made in recent years.

There is no doubt whatsoever about the plans of the Settlers; and as long as they are in the government, they will push forward with their plans. Is this what the billionaire libertarian Americans want? Does this fit with their plans for Israel, will they be willing to drop all their rhetoric about individual rights, freedom and liberties in lieu of Netanyahu as an emerging dictator?

Let it be clear, the libertarian ideas plus the messianic ideas of the settlers can destroy Israel. The huge wave of ongoing demonstrations may prove fruitful, but there is a role here for the U.S. government as well. The money that American billionaires have been donating to the settlers was reportedly sent via the Central Fund for Israel, a U.S.-registered non-profit organization for which there is seemingly no public list of donators nor the projects to whom the money goes to.

The New York Times described this as a “clearinghouse for donations” to the Settlements in the West Bank. Since neither the U.S. nor the entire world recognizes the West Bank as part of Israel, the “no tax” provision that is given by the U.S. government to these donations may not be legal and needs to be examined. Transferring a lot of money to ultra-right zealots whose main goal is apparently to “wipe out” the Palestinians from the West Bank and resurrect the kingdom of Israel of 2,000 years ago, and likely destroy the only democratic ally of the U.S. in this region on the way, this should be a major concern for President Joe Biden, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken and generally the U.S. government. They can help stop this horrendous phenomenon so that the book “The Ugly American: Version 2023” will not be written.

Zur Shapira is the William R. Berkley professor of entrepreneurship and management at the NYU Stern School of Business. Shapira is a dual Israeli and American citizen. He has previously served as an adviser to the Israeli government on labor issues. He is also co-author of “Entry into new foreign markets: Performance feedback and opportunity costs,” published in the Journal of World Business and “Social entrepreneurship to serve rural low-income markets: venture creation and growth,” published in the Strategic Entrepreneurial Journal.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Geopolitics International Israel Middle East Politics

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