In a mirror image of national and world reactions to the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish leaders in New Jersey are divided over the widening split in relations between the White House and the Israeli government, as well as over some of Netanyahu’s last-minute campaign tactics.
In the last days of campaigning leading up to last week’s Israeli elections, Netanyahu seemed to close the door on the possibility of a Palestinian state during his tenure, and angered many in Israel and abroad by singling out the strength of the Israeli-Arab vote.
Although Netanyahu walked back both remarks after his decisive re-election, the White House remained highly critical and warned of a realignment of United States-Israel relations.
For most Jewish leaders, the U.S.-Israel split is painful and regrettable; while many feel “overt hostility” toward Israel on the part of Obama, some did put the onus on Netanyahu.
“His use of Israeli-Arab voting as a scare tactic was outrageous, and when he said there would be no recognition of the Palestinians, that was terrible,” said Essex County Freeholder Pat Sebold, a Livingston resident who serves on the board of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Sebold said she has heard from some friends that though they feel “a growing sense of anger and alienation,” they are “still for Israel.” “That is not going away,” she said, “but this situation has got to change. I can’t say, ‘I don’t support Israel.’ But I want to have a better place than we have now, and I feel Netanyahu is not going to help the situation.”
Phyllis Bernstein, a federation board member from Westfield, is especially concerned with equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.
“My personal opinion is I have never liked or trusted Netanyahu,” said Bernstein, “and his apology — whatever you want to call it — was more theater than reality.”
By contrast, Laura Fein, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-NJ, said Netanyahu’s election-eve statements “merely provide an excuse, not the motivation, for [President Obama’s] threatened policy changes and overt hostility.”
“The election results, a confirmation by Israelis of their commitment to their own survival, serve merely as the White House’s latest excuse to chip away at the U.S.-Israel bond,” wrote Fein in an op-ed (see njjewishnews.com). “Since he came into office, the president has sought to put ‘daylight’ between the U.S. and Israel.”
Also pointing a finger at Obama, Mark Levenson, chair of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, said, “What has offended me in the last couple of weeks is that almost every day, the White House press spokesman has been saying, ‘Which Netanyahu are you going to believe?’
“Are you telling me that any of our presidents has not flip-flopped multiple times on many major issues?” said Levenson, an attorney at the Newark law firm of Sills Cummis & Gross.
Others are urging calm on all sides. In the days after the election, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Anti-Defamation League all released statements welcoming Netanyahu’s affirmation of support for a two-state solution.
Still others said that however their members leaned and whatever the election outcome, their support of Israel remains strong.
“I know that many American Jews, including AJC members, followed the elections closely. Many were disappointed while others were satisfied with the results,” said John Rosen, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in New Jersey.
“A very few who were not in favor of Netanyahu’s reelection have expressed their frustration, but I do not get a sense that their support for Israel is diminished,” he told NJJN in an e-mail.
“In fact, this frustration has led to discussions of just how vital AJC’s work is in strengthening the ongoing bipartisan support for Israel and the importance of working behind the scenes to better align Israel and U.S. interests.”
“Elections come and elections go, and there is going to remain a strong relationship between the United States and Israel,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ. “My hope is that through the hard work of the federation and the CRC, people will retain a strong support for Israel at the community level. We can’t let politics divide us.”
Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a nonpartisan PAC that backs pro-Israel congressional candidates, also urged restraint by the White House and its critics.
Chouake said he is generally “a supporter of the way the Obama administration has treated Israel,” but that he “would prefer the rhetoric to calm down a little bit. It is damaging to everyone.”
“I know people are disappointed. They’re upset, they mumble, they grumble, they complain,” he told NJJN. “But by and large, we get over it and move on. Our problems are much bigger than who was elected prime minister,” he said, citing Iran’s threat to commit “nuclear genocide.”
The crisis comes as another major bone of contention between Washington and Jerusalem — negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program — neared a crucial threshold: a March 31 deadline for a framework agreement between Iran and the major powers. Netanyahu’s deep skepticism of those talks led to his controversial speech before Congress last month, which infuriated the White House.
Doni Remba, a Westfield resident who is executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change, a progressive pro-Israel organization, said he saw “a silver lining in the dark cloud” of the election returns.
“By keeping the heat on Netanyahu over his opposition to a two-state solution and his race-baiting comments about Israeli Arabs, despite his unpersuasive attempts to walk back these statements and his unrepentant obstruction, with the Republicans, of any deal with Iran, Obama just might push Netanyahu to form a national unity government,” he said.
With reporting by JTA