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Israel’s response to Charlottesville hasn’t been as clear as you might have expected

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Aug. 13. (Dan Balilty/Reuters)

As neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” one may have expected Israel’s response to be swift and unequivocal.

But as President Trump was being criticized in the United States for blaming violence on “both sides,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has styled himself as a leader of Jews everywhere, drew flak for giving no response at all.

On his Twitter account, he sent Independence Day greetings to India, highlighted security challenges posed by Iran and shared a video of himself signing an agreement to build 30,000 new apartments in the port city of Ashdod. But on Charlottesville, he was silent.

Trump’s presidency may have ushered in a climate where anti-Semitic attacks in the United States have spiked, but it has also put a vocal supporter of Israel in the White House after years of frayed relations under Obama. That leaves Israel’s leadership walking a precarious line.

Netanyahu may have been reticent to speak out strongly before Trump, a newfound and staunch ally, did. But even when Trump finally criticized white supremacists and KKK members Monday for inciting violence, it still took Netanyahu another day to condemn the events.

(Even then he chose to use his official @IsraeliPM account, with just 494,000 followers, rather than his personal @Netanyahu account, with more than twice as many.)

Analysts said Netanyahu’s muted response on Charlottesville may further widen an already growing schism between Israel and Jews in other parts of the world, who feel directly threatened by the threat of rising fascism in the United States and Europe.

“It will strengthen the feeling among American Jews of distance from the current Israeli government,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

American Jewish groups reacted with outrage to Trump’s comments Tuesday night when he said there were “fine people” among the far-right demonstrators and criticized the “alt-left” for inciting violence.

“Astonished,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti Defamation League.

However, Netanyahu’s eldest son Yair echoed similar concerns Wednesday to Trump about the left-wing demonstrators. For Israel, left-wing actions such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which boycotts Israeli goods, has long been an issue.

“I’m a Jew, I’m an Israeli, the neo nazi scums in Virginia hate me and my country. But they belong to the past. Their breed is dying out,” the 26-year-old wrote on Facebook. “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 Knesset member from Netanyahu's party, also said Trump was right to criticize both sides. “Violence on all sides are prohibited and should be denounced!” he tweeted.

Some American Jews expressed anger with Israel after Netanyahu nixed plans to build a new mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which are prevalent in the United States, allow men and women to pray side by side, unlike Orthodox streams that dominate in Israel. In shelving the plan, Netanyahu was criticized by some politicians for harming Jewish unity and abandoning diaspora Jews.

Netanyahu’s initial silence on Charlottesville sent the message: “I am not the prime minister of the Jewish people. I am the prime minister of all of the Jewish people who are right-wing, pro-settlement, anti-Palestinian, pro-Me,” an editorial in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper read  Wednesday.

However, he was not the only one who was slow to respond. Netanyahu’s right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, was the only prominent politician to immediately condemn the events over the weekend.

Still, after Trump’s comments Tuesday night, others joined him.

“There aren’t two sides,” Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid, one of the largest opposition factions in Israel’s parliament, said in a statement. “When Neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville and scream slogans against Jews and in support of white supremacy, the condemnation has to be unambiguous.”