What Israel’s Election Means For U.S. Jews
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February 13, 2009




February 13, 2009


What Israel’s Election Means For U.S. Jews


What Israel’s razor-close national elections mean to American Jews


Neil Rubin


Rabbi Charles Arian was shocked by last Tuesday’s Israeli national elections even before the stunning results were announced.

“It was totally under the radar screen,” said the former Baltimorean and spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Conn. “Not a single congregant asked me a single question or made a single comment about this election. That’s amazing, because this is not a congregation that is unaware of things going on in Israel; we have a number of congregants with children who live there.”

On these shores, it also points to studies of recent decades that have consistently shown younger American Jews more distanced from the State of Israel than in previous generations. Two years ago in a survey of non-Orthodox American Jews –– 90 percent of the national community –– only 48 percent of those under age 35 agreed that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy. The number was substantially lower than the 81 percent for those 65 and older in the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies study.

Numerous recent conversations with pro-Israel activists here bear out that reality. The weekend before the Feb. 10 vote, when asked what he thought about the upcoming Israeli ballot, a Jewish professional focused on Jerusalem’s doings said, “Right, when are they?”

Part of that is because American Jews –– like many in Israel –– were still focused on the recent Gaza War and its aftermath. The pro-Israel crowd on these shores understandably takes its cue from friends and relatives in Israel, many of whom were shrugging off the pending vote until the last moment.

“This has been the most low-key election I can remember,” Alan Baklor, a former Baltimorean who made aliyah as a 22-year-old in 1985, said a few days before the election. “There have been no bumper-sticker wars, no banners hanging out of homes and few walls plastered with election posters.”

That’s because, Mr. Baklor said, the choice for many among Likud’s Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Labor’s Ehud Barak and Kadima’s Tzippy Livni represented “one failed prime minister, one failed prime minister and one failed foreign minister. People are fed up.”

At least, that’s how it looked a few days before the election. Yet, when the vote was cast, a surprisingly strong 65 percent of those eligible voted. The race, observers said, became interesting in the last 48 hours as the unprecedented number of undecided voters –– some 20 percent of the electorate –– began making their choice. That threw everything into question, particularly polls that as of last week had Mr. Netanyahu winning by about three seats.

Then, the wild rollercoaster of Israeli politics took its legendary unexpected turns. Generally reliable exit polls showed that Mrs. Livni had won by two to four seats. By the time the official tally had arrived on Wednesday morning, her Kadima Party had 28 seats to 27 for Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud.

But this is Israeli politics, whose reality is as clear as a David Blaine act of illusions. Mrs. Livni’s celebration was tainted as everyone agreed that she would have a harder time forming a 61-seat majority coalition in the Knesset than Mr. Netanyahu. That’s because when one combines the center-right Likud’s seats with those of smaller right-wing parties, Mr. Netanyahu bests the combined Kadima centrist bloc and left-wing parties.

Such nuances did not surprise Dr. Michael Bar-Zohar, a former Labor Party Knesset member and author of numerous books on Israeli history, who felt that Mrs. Livni had made too many mistakes to draw a clean majority of voters to herself and likely political allies in smaller parties.

It’s political strike two for her, he noted. That’s because back in September, after she became the party leader, outgoing Kadima Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked her to form a coalition to finish out his term, which was to expire in early 2010. He was bowing out in the face of numerous and mounting corruption scandals.

Mrs. Livni failed to succeed, being both jeered and cheered for not giving in to the demands of SHAS, the Sephardi Orthodox Party, of hundreds of millions of extra shekels for their school system. That brought on new elections in Israel’s parliamentary system.

“She did not understand how important it was for her to form a government and become prime minister so that she could run as an incumbent,” Dr. Bar-Zohar said. “This election was totally unnecessary. It’s Livni who made it. Nobody wanted it.”

On these shores, that leaves the peace-process favoring White House and the American Jewish community wondering who will be Israel’s next prime minister, and about their role in the interim.

Until they know whom they are dealing with in Jerusalem, here is what happens next.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 18, after consultations with the leaders of Israel’s parties, Israeli President Shimon Peres will tap whomever he considers to be the most likely candidate able to form a governing coalition. (The legendary backroom trading of Israeli politics, in fact, began within hours of the results.)

That person –– and as of this writing it’s impossible to know who, but check http://www.jewishtimes.com for updates — will have 42 days to succeed. If he or she fails, Mr. Peres can turn to the leader of the next largest party. If that person also does not complete the task, Mr. Peres will call for new elections.

As all of that takes place, the name Avigdor Lieberman is becoming more well-known around the world. Commentators are pointing to him as the unofficial winner of the ballot.

The controversial leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party could be a coalition kingmaker. His party just shot from 11 seats to 15, making it the Jewish state’s third largest political group and a crucial coalition partner.

That comes, in part, due to the implosion of the Labor Party, which under leader Ehud Barak plunged to an historic low, going from 19 seats to 13.

By American standards, it’s difficult to refer to Mr. Lieberman as anything other than a highly effective demagogue. The 50-year-old former Soviet immigrant is known for outrageous statements that clearly resonate with a chunk of the electorate.

Among his choice words:

• A July 2003 response to Ariel Sharon’s commitment to release 350 Palestinian prisoners that included Hamas and Islamic Jihad members. “It would be better,” Mr. Lieberman said, “to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea if possible, since that’s the lowest point in the world.”

• In Nov. 2006, he called for the execution of Arab Knesset members who met with Hamas leaders. “World War II ended with the Nuremberg trials,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “The heads of the Nazi regime, along with their collaborators, were executed. I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators in [the Knesset].”

He also is a vehement proponent of secular rights and critic of the SHAS party –– whose spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef recently called him “Satan.” Whether the two will sit in a coalition together remains an open but important question.

Both Mrs. Livni and Mr. Netanyahu know –– as does every Israeli prime minister –– that their most important fan abroad sits in the Oval Office.

The peace process-favoring Obama administration clearly leans toward the Kadima leader.

“Livni deeply believes that a two-state solution is in Israel’s national interests based on the democratic threats of holding on to the West Bank,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process and an adjunct lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. “That wasn’t clear with Mr. Netanyahu.”

When put simply, what is the main difference between Israel’s two leading candidates?

“Livni deeply believes that a two-state solution is in Israel’s national interest based on the democratic threats of holding onto the West Bank. You don’t sense that with Bibi,” Mr. Makovsky noted.

Dr. Bar-Zohar agreed, but said that the new Israeli leader will be negotiating with the Palestinians anyway.

“Bibi not a great supporter of the two-state solution, but he can be pulled into it,” he said. “He’ll be much tougher in negotiations. He’ll be much tighter on Gaza and rightly so because the war ended inconclusively. He’s more to the right, but he will definitely swallow cutting Jerusalem in two. What people say on the campaign trail is one thing and what they do in office is another. Just watch [U.S. President Barack] Obama.”

For their part, most American Jewish leaders, regardless of Israel’s victor, were concerned months ago over the course of U.S.-Israeli relations.

“It began as soon as it was likely that Obama would win, and some suggested that we might have a hard time. That was because of the scurrilous campaign that was launched against Obama by elements of our organized Jewish community,” said Dr. Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “I’m certainly not yelling and screaming, but we’re always ready to adapt based on the realities of Middle Eastern and American politics.”

That could be needed if Mr. Obama pushes Israel to disband settlements that both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Olmert agreed were illegal and needed to go; the Bush administration basically ignored the issue.

Overcoming such strains, however, might be a mutual concern over Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Speaking last Monday about a possible Netanyahu victory, Dr. Abramson noted that worries about Tehran could bump aside possible tensions in favor of a coordinated military effort by Israel against Iranian nuclear installations. Indeed, he said, one can envision U.S. cooperation, such as allowing for Israeli refueling flights over Iraq in such raids.

In exchange, Israel is likely to give in on core peace process issues. In Mr. Netanyahu’s case, for example, “He is going to do what he has to do to deal with what he perceives as the greatest threat that Israel faces,” said Dr. Abramson, who has a doctorate in Middle East studies. “He’s an ideologue on security issues, but not on religious issues in terms of the settlements. He’s not going to say, ‘We’re here because God put us here.’”

Meanwhile, partisan pro-Israel groups in this country were already busy sounding warning bells by Tuesday afternoon.

“Whoever forms the next coalition in Israel will face a reality that calls for pragmatism and moderation, and a new American president with a strong mandate to pursue Israeli-Arab peace,” Ori Nir, Americans For Peace Now’s spokesman, said moments after the results were announced. “Neither America nor Israeli voters will tolerate stalling tactics on the road to peace. There is simply too much at stake.”

From the right, Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein released a statement saying, “American-Israel relations will change depending on who the Prime Minister of the State of Israel is, and we are quite concerned about the Obama administration’s stance towards the State of Israel. With George Mitchell as the [U.S.] Mideast envoy, he incorrectly believes that the Palestinians and Israelis are equally at fault for the lack of progress.”

Two Political Journeys
So who is Israeli’s likely next leader?

Despite becoming accustomed to hearing her name as Israeli foreign minister in the past few years, most American Jews still know little about Mrs. Livni.

Her climb to the top was more than a bit unusual. She entered the Knesset about a decade ago, but did not play a major national role until Jan. 2006 when now-outgoing Prime Minister Olmert –– who had just taken over for the coma-stricken Ariel Sharon –– named her his foreign minister.

When Mr. Olmert announced that he would bow out of politics, suddenly all eyes were on her.

“She’s been the beneficiary of the winnowing process,” Dr. Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center and author of the best-selling “Power, Faith And Fantasy: America In The Middle East 1776 to the Present” (W.W. Norton), told the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES at that time. “You have to give her credit for sticking it out, but on the other hand she’s had a lot of luck.”

Her ideological journey was a long one. She grew up among the elite crowd of Menachem Begin’s Herut Party, which eventually became the center of the Likud Bloc. Its ideology was one of Yisrael Shlemah, Greater Israel. The primarily Ashkenazi group was ardently nationalist on territory and saw the state as the only haven for Jewish refugees and culture. To it, giving up even an inch of sacred Jewish land –– let alone the biblical cradle of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and later by extension the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip –– was an abomination.

Yet Mrs. Livni’s world vision began changing about six years ago as Mr. Sharon started speaking about the demographic threat posed by ruling millions of non-Jewish Palestinians.

Suddenly –– and the numbers are hotly debated –– it seemed that within a decade or so Israeli Jews would be a ruling minority in the Land of Israel. As the logic went, the Palestinians no longer needed to either demand the “right of return” to ancestral homes or a Palestinian state. That’s because within a short period, Israeli democracy would be forced to enact its “one-person, one vote” pledge, which would bring a Palestinian majority to the Knesset.

Mr. Sharon, unable to bring most Likud stalwarts along, pulled out of the right-of-center Likud to form Kadima. Mrs. Livni and Mr. Olmert joined from Likud, as did Mr. Peres, the titan of the Labor Party. When Mr. Sharon fell into a coma in Jan. 2006, Mrs. Livni was named foreign minister by Mr. Olmert.

On the other side, the election cemented a huge political comeback for Mr. Netanyahu.

A decade ago, as prime minister, he had his political head handed to him on a proverbial electoral platter. So dramatic was his trouncing at the polls by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak that Mr. Netanyahu went into a self-imposed political exile.

Off he went to the business world, where he reportedly gained a healthy pile of shekels speaking around the globe for Israeli high-tech companies.

But Mr. Netanyahu still had a strong political base, not to mention desire to lead the nation. And in June 2002, Mr. Sharon, then prime minister and Likud’s leader, brought him back into the government as a minister.

The articulate 59-year-old politician –– who once fought with Israel’s right and left, not to mention the White House and American Jews –– is likely to snipe at Mrs. Livni from inside or outside of her government. In fact, that’s what he did to Mr. Sharon.

Mr. Netanyahu’s electoral star kept rising as he strongly supported the recent war in Gaza, stressing that he had long pushed for a military response to Hamas’- rain of missiles on southern Israel. Nor did it hurt that he continually declared his desire for a national unity government of all Zionist parties.

Mr. Netanyahu, once the flag bearer of the right, was now promoting himself as a consensus candidate –– much as Mr. Sharon did in 2001 when he trounced Mr. Barak. Still, it was not enough, and Mr. Netanyahu and his aides are now faced with a major decision over their role in the next Knesset.

If he is asked to form a coalition, will it be a right-wing one? He has said he wants Kadima to join him, but that seems unlikely with Mrs. Livni at its helm.

If he is not anointed by Mr. Peres as the prime minister-designate, would he join the government, certainly gaining a major post –– maybe foreign minister? Or will he lead the opposition, seeking to push his country into yet another election?

Those questions and more will be answered in the coming month, a period in which there will no doubt be more political surprises for the citizens of Israel.

A Final Word

By any definition, the task of Israel’s next prime minister is monumental. He or she must combine vast amounts of skill and luck to meet the challenges.

The nation is still grappling with the aftermath of two inconclusive wars –– most recently with Hamas and the 2006 Hezbollah War in Lebanon. Meanwhile, an unrepentant terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction rules Gaza and is still occasionally firing missiles across a large swathe of southern Israel.

Over on the West Bank, a weak, old-guard Palestinian figure is propped up by the international community. The economy? It’s tottering, albeit not as badly as here. Still, venture capital — the business engine of the 1990s –– is gone.

Even after a coalition is formed, the next prime minister will need a string of political miracles to succeed beyond staying the course of keeping terrorism to a minimum, Israel out of more wars and the economy from imploding. That alone would be a huge success.

Fortunately, Israel’s next leader is about to run a country in which miracles were once commonplace. For sure, the chances of Jerusalem’s confines again hosting heaven-sent biblical wonders seem remote. But a few short years ago, so were the electoral promises of either Mrs. Livni or Mr. Netanyahu.

Election Results

No less than 43 parties ran in this year’s Israeli elections –– up from 31 in 2006. Here are the results.

Kadima: The ruling party goes from 29 seats to 28.

Likud: The opposition shoots up from only 12 seats to 27 seats.

Yisrael Beitenu: The controversial Avigdor Lieberman’s party rose from 11 seats to 15 seats.

Shas: The Sephardi Torah Guardians party once again stays strong, dropping only one seat from 12 to 11.

Bayit HaYehudi: This new combination of right-wing parties captured three seats.

Meretz: The secular rights party, now known as New Movement-Meretz, dropped to a precarious three from five.

Arab Parties: Surprising some pollsters, Arab voters turned out and supported their parties — Balad, United Arab List-Talal and Hadash (which bills itself as a Jewish-Arab party). They rose from 10 to 11 seats.

United Torah Judaism: UTJ, the combined party of Hasidic and Lithuanian Orthodox Jews, stays at five seats.

National Union: The modern Orthodox/settlers party, racked by recent splits, dropped from nine seats to four.

Note: The Pensioner’s Party, which had seven seats and was part of the Kadima government, did not win enough votes to return to the Knesset.

The Netanyahu File

Born: Oct. 21, 1949, in Tel Aviv

Family: Married to Sara, three children (Noa, with first wife, Micki Weizman;?Yair and Avner, with Sara)

Languages: English, French, Hebrew

Military: Captain, special forces (1967-1972)

Education: Architecture (B.A.), Business Management (M.Sci.) — Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United Nations: Ambassador (1984-1988)

Ministries: Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Justice Minister, Religious Affairs Minister, Science Minister, Housing Minister

The Livni File

Born: Aug. 7, 1958 in Tel Aviv

Family: Married, two children

Foreign Languages: English, French

Military Service: Lieutenant

Education: L.L.B., Bar Ilan University

Mossad: 1980-1984

Practicing attorney: 1984-1996

Government Companies Authority: 1996-1999, General Manager (in charge of privatization of government companies and monopolies)

Knesset: June 6, 1999 –– present (Likud, Kadima)

Ministries Headed: Regional Cooperation; Agricultural and Rural Development; Immigration and Absorption; Housing and Construction; Justice; Foreign Affairs

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