As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly courts pro-settler nationalists in his bid for re-election May 17, some of his biggest American supporters on the ideological right are either abandoning him or saying they are open to other candidates.
"I was one of his biggest supporters," said Dr. Joseph Frager, president of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a group that promotes the purchase of Arab property in east Jerusalem for Jewish settlement. "I spent countless hours trying to have him elected. But for the most part, I’ve been disappointed [with his performance] … and I’m not alone."
Frager said that an increasing number of Americans who had supported Netanyahu when he ran in 1996 (many of whom supported his election effort financially) have now become disenchanted, and that the Wye River Memorandum, signed in October, "was the straw that broke the camel’s back." The agreement called for Israel to withdraw troops from another 13.1 percent of the West Bank.
Frager, a New York physician who plans to meet next week in Israel with a number of political leaders in the nationalist camp, said he has decided to support Ze’ev (Benny) Begin, the son of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in his campaign to unseat Netanyahu as prime minister. He said Begin had the "greatest chance" of being elected because he is the "most principled and honest and a real straight shooter."
Frager will be joined in Israel by other American Jewish activists on the right, including State Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Dr. Irving Moskowitz, the Florida man whose funding of Jewish projects in the Old City of Jerusalem have made him the subject of intense controversy.
For Ronn Torossian, a former spokesman for both American Friends of Likud and World Likud in Jerusalem, Netanyahu has been a "disaster."
"I feel completely disenfranchised by Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision and actions as head of Likud," said Torossian, 25, who holds both American and Israeli citizenship. "I am extremely disenchanted."
He said he had been upset by Netanyahu’s decision to freeze construction at a proposed Jewish housing development Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem and by the Israeli troop withdrawal from parts of Hebron. But the Wye pact convinced him that Netanyahu was "no longer the leader of the nationalist camp," which is against giving up any further land in the West Bank.
"Wye was the day I said, ‘Enough of this guy,’" Torossian recalled. "I will never actively support him again."
Torossian said he expected to vote for Begin on Election Day. But he said he would "reluctantly" vote for Netanyahu if there was a second round of voting that pit the prime minister against Labor Party leader Ehud Barak.
An Israeli Gallup poll released Monday showed Netanyahu substantially trailing Barak and centrist candidates Dan Meridor and former Army Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
Another supporter of Netanyahu, Joe Mermelstein, a New York businessman, said he too was disenchanted with Netanyahu, "but that doesn’t mean you bolt. Nobody is perfect. I may be disenchanted with him, but I’m not that disenchanted that I would want to write him off."
Nevertheless, Mermelstein said he believed it was too early to decide whom to support in the election. He said he would want to hear the views of all the candidates on political, economic and religious issues and to see whom the polls showed had the best chance of winning.
"I like Benny Begin," he said. "He is very honest and forthright, but I also will look to see if he can win," he said. "I try to be pragmatic about it. I agree with most of his views, but is he winnable? The polls don’t show it yet. I also want to know what Meridor stands for. He is an honorable man. His views may be tilted towards the left, but he is still a Likud person. So it’s a little too early to make judgements on people."
Dov Hikind, another Netanyahu supporter, said he has not made up his mind who to support in the election and that these meetings would help him decide.
"I’m going to listen," said Hikind. "This is a tremendous opportunity. I represent a community where, needless to say, people are very interested [in Israel]. I don’t know what’s going to be [politically], but I’m fascinated by the idea of going. For me it is an educational trip. I can come back and talk about it and write about it."
He said he knew many of the political leaders (Begin and Uzi Landau of the Likud Party have both dined in his home) and would like to get to know the others, such as Avigdor Kahalani, founder of the Third Way and the current minister of internal security.
"I know the positions of the left, I don’t know [all of] the others," said Hikind.
A delegate of the Likud to the World Zionist Congress last year, Hikind said he also wanted to meet with Meridor and members of his new center-right party.
"The party has not taken a clear position on anything, as of today," said Hikind.
Frager, who helped put together next week’s trip to Israel at the behest of Irving Moskowitz, said participants hoped to help leaders of Israel’s national camp "formulate their feelings and gather their thoughts in a very confusing period so that we come out on top [on Election Day]. You have to bring them chizuk [strength]. What we are trying to do is get people like [Communications Minister] Limor Livnat to formulate her goals and ideas, and get her to move into the camp she belongs: the national camp."
As part of his outreach to nationalists, Netanyahu last week encouraged Jews to move into the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, which lies just beyond the Old City walls in Jerusalem. And his press spokesman, David Bar-Ilan, said Netanyahu was re-evaluating his decision to delay construction of new Jewish homes in a Palestinian neighborhood just east of Silwan, Ras al-Amoud.
A spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York pointed out that the reassessment was prompted by a finding of the Israeli Antiquities Authority that there were no important archeological artifacts on the site.
Moscowitz has reportedly bought a four-acre plot in Ras al-Amoud for the construction of 132 homes for Jews.
Controversy over construction of a Jewish community at Har Homa precipitated a 19-month suspension of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The Netanyahu government has insisted that new Jewish home building in Jerusalem is not prohibited by any agreements with the Palestinians.
Palestinian leaders reacted angrily to Netanyahuís encouragement of further Jewish settlement in Silwan. Faisal Husseini charged that "Netanyahu decided to use settlement activities in Jerusalem as a bribe" to voters. And he warned that if settlement activity is not halted, Palestinians would bring "destruction to the entire area."