February 13, 2009
What Israels Election Means For U.S. Jews
s razor-close national elections mean to American Jews Israel
Rabbi Charles Arian was shocked by last Tuesdays 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
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
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
Part of that is because American Jews like many in
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.
Thats because, Mr. Baklor said, the choice for many among Likuds Binyamin Bibi Netanyahu, Labors Ehud Barak and Kadimas Tzippy Livni represented one failed prime minister, one failed prime minister and one failed foreign minister. People are fed up.
At least, thats 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. Netanyahus Likud.
But this is Israeli politics, whose reality is as clear as a David Blaine act of illusions. Mrs. Livnis 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. Thats because when one combines the center-right Likuds 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.
Its political strike two for her, he noted. Thats 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
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. Its 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 Israels next prime minister, and about their role in the interim.
Until they know whom they are dealing with in
Next Wednesday, Feb. 18, after consultations with the leaders of Israels 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 its 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 states 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, its 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 Sharons 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
In Nov. 2006, he called for the execution of Arab Knesset members who met with Hamas leaders. World War II ended with the
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
When put simply, what is the main difference between
Livni deeply believes that a two-state solution is in
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. Hell be much tougher in negotiations. Hell be much tighter on
For their part, most American Jewish leaders, regardless of
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. Im certainly not yelling and screaming, but were always ready to adapt based on the realities of Middle Eastern and American politics.
That could be needed if Mr. Obama pushes
Overcoming such strains, however, might be a mutual concern over
Meanwhile, partisan pro-Israel groups in this country were already busy sounding warning bells by Tuesday afternoon.
Whoever forms the next coalition in
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 administrations stance towards the State of Israel. With George Mitchell as the [
Two Political Journeys
So who is Israelis 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.
Shes been the beneficiary of the winnowing process, Dr. Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based
Her ideological journey was a long one. She grew up among the elite crowd of Menachem Begins 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. Livnis 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
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 Likuds leader, brought him back into the government as a minister.
The articulate 59-year-old politician who once fought with
Mr. Netanyahus electoral star kept rising as he strongly supported the recent war in
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
A Final Word
By any definition, the task of
The nation is still grappling with the aftermath of two inconclusive wars most recently with Hamas and the 2006 Hezbollah War in
Over on the
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,
No less than 43 parties ran in this years 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 Liebermans 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.
Note: The Pensioners 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
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