On election night Israel was no longer the 51st state, but it was New York that became an Israeli district all its own.
American Friends of Likud welcomed Ariel Sharonís re-election with balloons, campaign posters and a victory address from the prime minister, even if the party was on the East Side of Manhattan. Well into Tuesday night, several hundred American Likudniks heard from commentators and politicians long distance via phone and television hookups, as a steady stream of Likud leaders, from Sharon to Benjamin Netanyahu to Ehud Olmert said hello to New York.
ìWe got the whole team,î says J. Phillip Rosen, chair of American Likud.
The night before, students supporting the leftist Meretz party acted out what they called ìthe crazy game of coalition buildingî at New York Universityís Bronfman Center, with someone taking the part of each of Israelís dizzying assortment of parties.
Charney Bromberg, executive director of Meretz USA, could see Likudís victory coming like a locomotiveís headlight. ìThe electorate is in a state of anger and depression,î he said. ìIsraelis are traumatized. Itís understandable.î He recalled being with an Israeli cousin ìwho had kids in the military. She had dark rings under eyes. She canít sleep. She smokes two or three times more than she ever did. How can she not be traumatized? She was a lifelong Meretz voter who is voting Shinui. Her anger is now directed at the religious elements whose sons wonít serve in the military and whose parties have thwarted the democratic notions that she subscribes to.î
ìThis is one screwed-up society,î says Bromberg. ìPeople are holding on by their fingernails. Sharon is ruining the economy and lives continue to be lost at an unprecedented rate. Yet, Labor is simply paralyzed, it seems,î and on Tuesday night, Meretz, too was losing seats in the electoral helter-skelter, from 10 to six.
On the eve of Election Day, Likudís Rosen was talking about his trip last week to Israel. ìWe went everywhere, to Hebron, Kever Rachel [Rachelís Tomb], the kind of trip that people did two-and-a-half years ago. One soldier said he finished his army duty three months ago but he knew the situation so he volunteered for another three months. He said, ëWhy should the bullets whiz by someone elseís head?í I said to these guys, ëYou impress the hell out of me.í They said back to me, ëYou donít have to be here either,í but weíre one people,î said Rosen, ìand if we stand together we can win.î
Rosen figured Likud won because ìthe public wants a strong prime minister, and theyíre looking at what Sharon is doing, not what heís saying,î about supporting a Palestinian state. ìThe people are desperate for peace but that canít overwhelm the Oslo sucker factor ó hit me once, shame on you; hit me twice, shame on me.î
But Rosen added that even as the Shinui party was gaining on an anti-Orthodox platform, Sharon himself was not cognizant enough of the weight that Judaism deserved in government decisions.
ìI donít think Sharon receives appropriate advice, or has full cognizance of the religious issues,î he said. ìA lot of Israeli politicians are separating religion from nationalism. In a Jewish state, Jewishness is nationalism. If youíre willing to keep Jews away from the Temple Mount and Josephís Tomb, the message to the enemy is that your nationalism doesnít exist. The other side understands the tie between religion and nationalism. Sharon does not.î He doubted Sharon would form a government with the anti-religious Shinui.
Rosen says American Friends of Likud ìgives support to the Likud position, and I say that very carefully because if the Likud position runs counter to the position of the government, then we support the Likud position.î For example, Sharon supports the idea of a Palestinian state at the end of this war. ìWeíre against that,î says Rosen of the Likud position.
Several hundred may have been with Rosen on election night, but Rosen says the group has an e-mail list of more than 15,000.
Did Rosen think Sharon was wounded by several scandals that emerged during the campaign?
ìThat was outrageous,î says Rosen. ìWhatever Sharon did didnít come close to what Laborís politicians have done, let alone their selling out the stateî in the peace process.
Although Rosen perceived the Jewish religious position to be one of fidelity to the holy places, even in embattled regions of the West Bank, Rabbi Avi Shafran disagreed. Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, says ìhuman life has to take precedence over land,î and even precedence over holy places if thatís what it comes to.
Agudah is a non-Zionist haredi group, precisely the type that Shinui has in its cross-hairs. ìIf Shinui enters the Sharon government and makes headway in turning Israel into a secular state,î says Shafran, ìwe perceive that to be the end of the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, call it Israel, call it anything, it wonít have any reason to be there. If itís not a Jewish state, what is its reason?î
Shafran says is there even one fervently Orthodox political party that demonizes anyone for lack of observance, ìor caricatures nonobservant Jews in ways that evoke the work of Goebbels and Streicher?î Is there an Orthodox party ìthat refuses to participate in any government that includes non-religious parties, and that wants to eliminate welfare for nonreligious families living below the poverty line?î No, says Shafran, ìbut that is what Shinui does to the Orthodox. Shinui is the first party in the Jewish stateís history to base itself on defining a group of fellow Jews as the public enemy.î
Whatever has happened to Israel already, says Shafran, ìAn increased Shinui presence in the government would be that much of a step backwards.î
On the other hand, Rabbi Shafran says the Orthodox relationship with Sharon is a wary one. Agudah-affiliated Israelis ìdonít see Sharon as a bosom-buddy. He doesnít pretend to be. He has a deep sensibility of Israel as a Jewish state, but he doesnít see eye to eye with us on religious issues.î
Itís clear, says the rabbi, ìthat golus [the existential exile] isnít over, even with a Jewish state. Israel may have nuclear weapons but we canít take possession of what is ours. In the excitement of 1967,î when Israel liberated all the holy places and the West Bank, the Zionists asked us, ëYou call this golus? We have Jerusalem, we have the Temple Mount!í We never accepted that.
ìIn the days when Zionists felt secure, we didnít feel secure,î Schafran said. ìNow, nobody feels secure.î n