columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Will another Netanyahu victory sever ties with the Diaspora?

The outcome of the September election is unclear, but the assumption that a different prime minister will bridge the divide is a myth.

Israeli election ballots, April 9, 2019. Credit: Laliv G. via Wikimedia Commons.
Israeli election ballots, April 9, 2019. Credit: Laliv G. via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The slates are set for next month’s elections in Israel, but considering that it was only four months ago that voters last went to the polls to try to elect a government, their lack of enthusiasm is understandable.

Since April 9, when parties pledged to select Benjamin Netanyahu to continue as prime minister won 65 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset, a lot has happened. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which won five seats while ostensibly running to be part of the next Likud Party-led coalition, decided to insist on the passage of a draft bill that the ultra-Orthodox parties, who also made up part of the last government, wouldn’t accept. The result was a political standoff that led to new elections. Polls indicate that there will be some changes from the April results when the next Knesset is elected on Sept. 17. However, the end result is likely to create another stalemate with the Yisrael Beiteinu leader seeking to play kingmaker in what might be the beginning of the post-Netanyahu era in Israeli politics.

But while Israel’s left-wing parties are hoping that the second vote in five months will somehow produce a different result, their great fear is that somehow Netanyahu, who has been counted out many times in the past, will pull an electoral rabbit out of his hat and confound the pundits by somehow emerging with an electoral majority.

Those worrying about the possibility are now trotting out the same doleful arguments about the consequences of continued rule by Netanyahu.

According to his critics, another Netanyahu government will a) further doom the peace process; b) destroy Israeli democracy; and c) sever the last ties between Israel and the Diaspora as liberal American Jews recoil in disgust at Netanyahu’s intransigence and corruption.

Are they right?

The notion that Israel somehow has within its power to magically make peace with the Palestinians lies at the core of the belief system of Israel’s marginalized left-wing parties. The vast majority of Israelis believe that there no Palestinian peace partner exists, and understand that both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are neither willing nor ready to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn.

Moreover, as long as Hamas supports Israel’s extinction and the P.A. rewards terrorists with salaries and pensions, the percentage of Israelis who believe in a two-state solution will continue to decline. The murder this week of Dvir Sorek, a 19-year-old Israeli yeshivah student, in the West Bank, and the support this crime received from Palestinians is just one more reason why Israelis think that a peace partner remains elusive. And it’s also why Netanyahu’s primary rivals in the Blue and White Party are careful to try to sound even more hawkish than the prime minister.

Nor would another Netanyahu government doom Israeli democracy. While there are good reasons to think that 10 years is an invitation to the sort of problems that afflict all American administrations that last more than one term, most of those who speak of Netanyahu as a threat to democracy are mainly upset at the outcome of Israel’s democratic elections. Even if the next Netanyahu-led government would grant him immunity from prosecution while he was in office (something that is routine in most democracies for any head of government), the idea that any of the offenses of which he is accused represent a threat to democratic rule is risible.

Still, Netanyahu’s critics are not wrong when they say that the prime minister turns off most American Jews, and that their opposition to him undermines Israel-Diaspora relations.

There’s no doubt that liberal U.S. Jewry has little understanding of the security situation that has sidelined the Israeli parties and leaders they see as more attractive options. Many also buy into the misleading arguments put forward to brand the Israeli right as undemocratic, even if they have equally little grasp of topics like reform of Israel’s Supreme Court that is at the heart of that issue.

It’s also true that the majority of American Jews who are loyal Democrats resent the closeness between Netanyahu and President Donald Trump. There is a stark contrast between the Israeli affection for the man who has been the most pro-Israel president to date, and the angry contempt for Trump on the part of most of the American Diaspora.

So in that sense, another Netanyahu-led government wouldn’t heal the growing breach between Israel and the Diaspora.

And yet, another prime minister would not make that much of a difference on any of these issues.

Liberal Jews who think Netanyahu is the obstacle to peace are not likely to be any happier with the policies of former Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff Gen. Benny Gantz should he somehow cobble together a coalition this fall. Nor is he likely to try the sort of massive concessions to the Palestinians that led to bloodshed and political grief for Netanyahu’s predecessors. The wheeling and dealing that he would have to do in order to get to 61 votes wouldn’t strike liberal Zionist critics as any more democratic than anything Netanyahu has done.

Most of all, Gantz would have to be just as friendly to Trump as Netanyahu has been since it is a primary obligation of every Israeli prime minister to stay as close to the U.S. government as possible. Gantz is no more inclined to aid the “resistance” to Trump than Netanyahu.

Even more important, at the heart of the breach between Israel and American Jewry are demographic issues, in which a sense of Jewish peoplehood is declining among the latter as assimilation and widespread intermarriage have created a community that is no longer that interested in Israel or, frankly, the person leading it.

Even if Netanyahu’s time in power is coming to an end, the gap between Israel and the Diaspora isn’t likely to shrink, no matter who wins on Sept. 17.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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