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The votes in Israel’s latest Knesset election are still being counted, but the exit polls confirmed the worst fears of the Biden administration. While Israel isn’t getting the same kind of obsessive attention it has received at times in the past, there’s no question that President Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team have strong opinions about who should be running the Jewish state that are echoed by most Democrats and the liberal mainstream media.
They liked interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid and feared the possible return to power of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.
The prospect of not only a victory for Netanyahu and his Likud Party, but the formation of a government with a prominent role for the Religious Zionist Party and one of its controversial leaders, Itamar Ben Gvir, is enough to set the hair of Democrats and the foreign-policy establishment on fire.
Ben Gvir was a supporter of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s in his youth and has a well-earned reputation as a right-wing provocateur who often clashed with the police. The attorney/activist moderated his views somewhat however, as he became more politically viable. But he is still treated by both Israeli and American liberals as anathema and a mortal threat to democracy.
That sets up a situation where the temptation for Washington to try to influence the coalition negotiations that will follow the counting of the votes may prove irresistible.
It wouldn’t be the first time American administrations had tried to play that game. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both sought to defeat Netanyahu and then aid his opponents in their quest to thwart his efforts to form governments. But this time, the motivation is slightly different.
In the past, those attempts to topple Netanyahu-led governments were primarily part of a campaign to promote the peace process with the Palestinians. Now, the main focus of American intervention—which may well be seconded by many leading American-Jewish groups—will be an effort to prevent the Religious Zionists and Ben Gvir from being part of a governing coalition.
The same group of Democratic foreign-policy hacks have largely staffed the Clinton, Obama and now Biden administrations. They all refuse to acknowledge the reality that Palestinian nationalism is inextricably tied to century-old Arab war on Zionism. That renders them incapable of accepting the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.
Biden’s team is just as devoted to the myth of “land for peace.” But they are not so dim as to fail to realize that expending precious political and diplomatic capital on behalf of the Palestinians is a waste of time. They know that there will be no two-state solution in the foreseeable future, regardless of who is prime minister of Israel.
Still, the initially Naftali Bennett-led ramshackle coalition that ousted Netanyahu in the summer of 2021 downplayed its opposition to Biden’s desire for rapprochement and a new nuclear deal with Iran, rather than openly challenging them, as Bibi would have done.
Biden was even happier with Lapid, who took over after the coalition collapsed. Lapid bowed to American pressure to make concessions to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon on a maritime border agreement that involved Israel’s conceding its rights to natural-gas resources that it had previously claimed. Netanyahu has vowed to reverse that one-sided deal.
Yet, keeping Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office will not in of itself be the main focus of American intervention. The Religious Zionists’ impressive performance, which seems to have made them Israel’s third largest party, not only puts them in a position to help Netanyahu gain the majority that had eluded him in the four rounds of Knesset elections that were held since the spring of 2019.
It also means its leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir, are in line to become ministers in the next government. And this is something that both Washington and liberal American Jews would do just about anything to prevent.
While there has been a flurry of articles in the legacy media and liberal Jewish outlets seeking to depict Smotrich, and especially Ben Gvir, as enemies of both democracy and decency, it will have been a mere foretaste of what is likely to follow the election.
The pair give their detractors plenty of fodder for criticism. But the rise of Smotrich and Ben Gvir is a natural consequence of the failure of the current government to adequately address the rise in Palestinian terrorism. It also reflects the growth of the religious population and the collapse of credibility of those parties that championed outreach to the Palestinians over the course of the last two decades as the Oslo peace process proved to be a disaster.
In contrast to the overwhelmingly liberal bent of American Jewry, Israeli Jews are more likely to be proudly nationalist and have fewer illusions about the Palestinian desire for peace. They are sympathetic to leaders who are unashamed about their desire for Israel to be a Jewish state rather than a non-sectarian nation in which Jewish peoplehood and religion are downplayed.
Smotrich and Ben Gvir have prospered because they have captured the spirit of the times with their in-your-face style and confrontational attitude toward both the Israeli left and the Arabs.
They horrify the latter, as well as most American Jews and even those Democrats who, like Biden, talk about their love for Israel, but only like those Israelis who do as they are told and are presentable to liberal American audiences. Even a pro-Israel stalwart like Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was a thorn in the side of the Obama administration because of his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, has said that a government with the Religious Zionists would not get a warm welcome on Capitol Hill.
But the claims that Smotrich and Ben Gvir would be a threat to democracy are partisan bunk. Neither their justified efforts to reform Israel’s judiciary nor their demands for a more aggressive stance against terrorists—nor even their support for annexation of settlements in Judea and Samaria—would transform the country into a non-democratic entity or fundamentally change its character.
Israeli society will remain an often-confusing mix of the secular and the religious and an avowedly Jewish state, whether they are in the government or not. The canard that Israel is an “apartheid state” will be just as much a lie with them running ministries as it was when they were in the opposition.
What it will mean, though, is that the next Israeli Cabinet will be less easily manipulated by Netanyahu as he characteristically aims to chart a cautious middle path on policy, especially on security issues. Indeed, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir will probably be troublesome coalition partners.
That’s why Netanyahu would likely prefer, if at all possible, to entice the center-left parties led by Lapid and Benny Gantz into his government. But, since neither of them is apt to be led down the garden path by the slippery Bibi again, he’s likely to be stuck with the Religious Zionists.
The “defending democracy” rhetoric of those Americans inclined to meddle in Israeli politics in the coming weeks is a smokescreen for something less admirable. The main problem that both Israeli leftists and their American sympathizers have with Israeli democracy is that their side doesn’t win the country’s free and fair democratic elections.
Israel’s people don’t need to be saved from themselves. Their governments are supposed to represent the needs and concerns of the citizens, not the sensibilities of the country’s foreign friends, be they of the faithful or—as is the case with many of Netanyahu’s and Ben Gvir’s most bitter opponents—the fair-weather variety.
It will be a bitter pill for American liberals to swallow, but if they truly support the Jewish state, they will accept the verdict of the voters. If not, they should stop posing as defenders of democracy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.