Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has made The Speech, after a prolonged, bitter spat between the White House and Jerusalem, we should soon get a sense of how this embarrassing drama has played out at home for the prime minister. The national elections are set for March 17, and Israelis will speak up through the ballot box.
It will be more difficult, though, to measure the impact of the rift on American Jewry, and to see what its impact on our relationship with Israel will be.
If Netanyahu’s Likud party prevails and achieves a significant victory, observers will attribute much of its success to the Israeli electorate deciding that its desire for security — in this case, from the threat of a nuclear Iran — trumped its goal of maintaining strong ties between Israeli and American leaders.
If, on the other hand, Netanyahu stumbles at the polls, his decision to circumvent Washington protocol and engage in a public feud with President Obama over the Iran negotiations will be viewed as the decisive blow that brought him down.
Given the nature of the Israeli political system, it may take weeks for the election results to produce a coalition government. In Israel it’s not the leader of the party with the most votes that automatically wins; last time around, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party received more votes than Netanyahu’s Likud. But she could not put together a coalition of at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, so Netanyahu got his turn and he managed to do so.
Once again he would have the advantage in cobbling together a working government because he could turn to two other right-of-center parties, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, which is expected to do well in the polls, and Avigdor Lieberman’s scandal-plagued Yisrael Beiteinu, even though there is strong personal animosity between Netanyahu and Bennett, and no love lost between Netanyahu and Lieberman. (Both men served as top advisers to Netanyahu earlier in his career, which led to animus between them and their former boss.)
It seems clear that Netanyahu would also bring the religious parties back into the government. That would present a setback for non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. critical of the high halachic bar set for marriages, divorces and conversions by the chief rabbinate in Israel. Until those standards are eased, the great majority of diaspora Jews will feel they are second-class citizens in their own Jewish homeland.
What’s more, that feeling of disenfranchisement will be fueled by the increasingly dim prospects for a two-state solution and by the fracture between Netanyahu and Obama on a personal level that has seriously strained the U.S.-Israel relationship. A third term for the prime minister could further alienate many, if not most, American Jews.
“It would mean a more hawkish government in Jerusalem and that will turn off people all the more,” said an executive of a leading centrist Jewish organization, noting that about 70 percent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2012. No doubt many feel they have been placed in a position of having to choose between their loyalties to their country and their homeland.
Indeed, the long-heralded “unshakeable bond” between Washington and Jerusalem could be seen as shuddering in the wind.
The nasty political campaign being waged in Israel may be attributed to the fact that the stakes are so high. Each side, left and right, is convinced that a win by its opponents could spell the end of Israel. The right thinks a Herzog-Livni victory would mean dangerous territorial concessions to the Palestinians that would threaten Israel’s existence. And the left believes another Netanyahu win would jeopardize the state’s democratic values and further isolate Israel around the world, with a less than sympathetic U.S. unwilling to come to Jerusalem’s diplomatic rescue.
As a result, the personalized insults traded back and forth in Israel are intended to demonize one’s opponents, not just counter them.
That air of animosity is evident here as well. Shmuley Boteach, self-defined as “America’s Rabbi,” sponsored a full-page ad on Iran in last Saturday’s New York Times and asserted that National Security Adviser Susan Rice has “a blind spot” when it comes to “genocide.” (Jewish groups quickly and strongly condemned him for his language.) A couple of weeks ago the rabbi publicly suggested that NYU’s Hillel is not sufficiently pro-Israel (because it chose not to partner with his organization in a planned event). And in recent days several top Jewish lay leaders in New York have been called out by a small group of vocal critics for donating to the New Israel Fund, which the critics consider to be anti-Israel. (No mention was made of the fact that the lay leaders targeted by name give generously to a wide range of Jewish causes, including those considered right of center on Israel as well.)
The political atmosphere here these days in regard to Israel is more than tainted — it’s toxic. Some suggest privately that the anti-left charges are part of a campaign paid for by Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas-based businessman and hard right supporter of Israel who backed a number of Republican candidates in prior elections. But such talk is based more on speculation than proof, indicative of the mood of suspicion that prevails.
Perhaps it will ease after the Israeli elections, when a governing coalition emerges and becomes the focus of attention. But already the community-sponsored Celebrate Israel parade, held each spring on Fifth Avenue, has become a source of controversy once more. Some vocal opponents of the New Israel Fund are insisting it not be allowed to march in the one major public event whose goal is to show the size, depth and diversity of our support for the Jewish state. It’s a sad statement on the anger, intolerance, distrust and pettiness that seeks to divide rather than unite, proof that at times we — from the prime minister of Israel on down — can be our own worst enemy.