The photograph displayed on giant billboards for the Likud party for Israel’s national election, set for April 9, could serve as a Rorschach test for the majority of Jews in America and Israel, underscoring the wide and deepening divide between them.
The posters show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump shaking hands and smiling broadly. The text reads: “Netanyahu. In a different league.”
For Israelis, the message is clear. Only Netanyahu has the close relationship with, and ear of, the president of the United States, so widely admired in Israel for his unprecedented, forthright favoring of Jerusalem over its enemies. It was Trump who moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, killed the Iran deal, annexed the Golan, and cut funds to the Palestinians. Seeing the two men embrace gives most Israelis a feeling of pride and confidence.
But the majority of American Jews, almost 80 percent of whom voted Democrat in 2016, see Trump as immoral, unschooled, and mean-spirited, a would-be demagogue undermining democratic values and institutions. Even his tangible and full-throated support for Israel is viewed, perhaps unfairly, as more transactional than authentic; critics see this approach as harmful for Israel in the long run by seeking to crush rather than deal with the Palestinians.
As a result, the image of Trump with Netanyahu, to those people, evokes feelings of embarrassment, even anger.
Much as we herald the harmony between American Jewry and Israel, as evidenced by more than 18,000 people voicing their support for the Jewish state at the AIPAC national policy conference in Washington last week, the reality is that the two societies are moving in dramatically different directions — each for their own compelling reasons.
Most American Jews place the highest significance on freedom, human rights, equality, and pluralism, recognizing that those values have helped them attain full status in American society. For the many activists pressing Israel’s case in venues from Capitol Hill to college campuses to city councils, the prospect of defending Israel could become far more problematic if democracy erodes there with the annexation of the West Bank. The thought that young, liberal Zionist activists might abandon the cause should keep Jewish leaders up at night. Israelis, however, living in a small state in a violent and chaotic region, have high regard for nationalism, independence, military strength, and security, knowing those attributes have allowed them to survive and flourish among hostile enemies.
It’s all about Bibi
Those contrasting values and perspectives are sure to come into play in assessing the results of the upcoming Israeli election. As the country heads to the polls, one thing critics and supporters of Netanyahu agree on is that this election is of historic importance, leading toward — or away from — a one-state solution (which could preclude a future Palestinian state) and a deeper rift with American Jewry.
Previous Israeli elections have been contests between parties of the left and the right. But as Israeli society has moved dramatically rightward in recent years, this one is between the center and the right.
The new Blue and White party, presenting a serious challenge to Netanyahu, is led by former military leaders, making it difficult for the prime minister to dismiss them as weak. As usual, though, the key issue voters will contend with is not the economy, education, or peace with Israel’s neighbors. Rather, it’s all about Bibi, like him or not, and whether the sense of security he provides outweighs concerns about his personal integrity and his latest government’s perceived efforts to strengthen nationalism at the cost of democracy.
An editorial in Haaretz, the liberal daily, put it in stark terms: “What is at stake in the coming election,” the editors wrote, “is saving democracy in Israel.” They noted that Netanyahu, on the verge of indictment for fraud, bribery, breach of trust, and corruption, leads a government that has devoted much of its efforts “to assailing democracy and its institutions through anti-democratic legislation that attempted to weaken the High Court of Justice and limit the power of the country’s gatekeepers.” Most dramatic, and controversial, was the passage last summer of the nation-state law that omitted “equality” from the final language of the text, signaling to the state’s minorities that they are second-class citizens. Netanyahu’s courting of a racist party to join his coalition hasn’t helped matters.
Most Israelis, though, appear comfortable in asserting Jewish authority over the Arab population and in Israel flexing its muscles in the face of ongoing military threats from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Syria, both stand-ins for the ayatollahs in Iran.
The fact is that while many American Jews look to Blue and White with appreciation for and hope in its promise to heal the rift between diaspora Jewry and Israel over issues of prayer at the Kotel, conversion, and Jewish identity, Benny Gantz, the party’s leader, is not the answer to liberal Zionist dreams. He has not spoken during the campaign of plans for a two-state solution or ending Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Indeed, no one — neither the many candidates nor the public — seems to have much to say about a two-state solution these days.
If Gantz’s party prevails and he becomes prime minister, the optics might change and there may well be more of a sense of openness emanating from the prime minister’s office. But American Jews shouldn’t expect any significant changes on major policy issues, from peace with the Palestinians to full religious equality for those who are not Orthodox. That’s because any responsible Israeli government must deal with the harsh realities of providing security for its citizens — and contending with the Chief Rabbinate — even if the tactics don’t please liberal Jews in the U.S.
Is West Bank annexation next?
More likely than a Blue and White victory is another term of Netanyahu as prime minister. Like Trump, his party may not get the most votes. But he has a better chance of forming a coalition. And this time his partners would be even more right-leaning, thrilled with the Golan annexation and eager to annex at least parts of the West Bank, starting with key Jewish communities like Gush Etzion and Ariel. Netanyahu may well comply with such plans, however reluctantly, in return for assuring the passage of legislation that would not allow a sitting prime minister to be indicted.
Netanyahu has held back on a pledge to annex the West Bank because he knows it means the end of the vision of a two-state solution, forcing Israel to choose between remaining a democracy, with an additional 2.5 million Arab citizens — on the road to no longer being a Jewish majority — or to be a Jewish state that denies its Arab citizens the right to vote, which could be seen by the world as apartheid.
David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, made the case in his AIPAC speech for taking advantage of Trump’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan, indicating that it will not call for ceding West Bank land. “How can we kick the can down the road and leave this [a peace plan] to our successors?” he asked. “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley? … Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand that in the Middle East, peace comes through strength, not just through words on paper?”
The prospect of a next Netanyahu government pushing forward on West Bank annexation with at least tacit approval of the White House would be a dream come true for many, perhaps the majority, of Israelis — even though they know it could lead to war and a more definitive form of isolation from the international community. The fact that it would further alienate much of American Jewry is a price many Israelis would be willing to pay, noting that it is their sons and daughters whose lives are on the line, not ours.
In the end, these decisions are Israel’s, of course, and the election is still up for grabs. For now, looking at the billboard photo of a smiling Netanyahu and Trump, I can only wonder how we will look back on that relationship a year or a decade from now. As the beginning of the dream or the nightmare?
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.