After years of mounting tension between many in the American-Jewish community who feel disenfranchised by Israel’s right-wing government, this week’s inconclusive Israeli election has left them in an unnerving state of limbo. And some are fearful that in the end Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will eke out a victory and follow through with his promise to begin annexing parts of the West Bank, dooming any chance of a two-state solution most American Jews support.
“It could have very serious consequences for Israel and Israeli security, and we are very concerned about it,” said Susie Gelman, chair of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).
Gelman said that although it has been “accepted wisdom” that the major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank would become part of Israel in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians — along with land swaps — Netanyahu’s plan to annex the areas unilaterally would preclude the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Gelman noted that Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of former Israeli security officials, has written about the dangers of unilateral annexation, including an end to Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and the resulting need to deploy Israeli troops to the West Bank to provide security, social welfare services, and education.
And she said such a move might also impair the developing relationship Netanyahu was cultivating with leaders of moderate Sunni Arab countries.
Alan Dershowitz, who was an adviser to the Trump administration as it crafted its soon-to-be-released Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, said that if Netanyahu’s annexation plan is “limited to the major settlement blocs, it would not be a barrier to a two-state solution.”
But Netanyahu, in an interview on Israel television Saturday night that was seen as a last-minute attempt to rally his political base, declared unequivocally, “I’m going to extend sovereignty [in parts of the West Bank]. … I don’t differentiate between the settlement blocs and isolated settlements.”
If Netanyahu does not deviate from that position, Dershowitz said, “it would create a problem. I hope he would reconsider that part of his proposal.”
Asked if he agreed with Netanyahu’s chief rival in Tuesday’s election, the Blue and White party’s Benny Gantz, who said annexation of the West Bank could lead to a “nightmarish” scenario, Dershowitz replied: “We heard that before about moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and about the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. I would leave it to Israeli intelligence to assess what the consequences might be.”
Dershowitz added: “I think the American-Jewish community is very split. Some are strong supporters of Netanyahu. Others would … welcome a more liberal approach to issues like the Kotel and limitations on the power of the Chief Rabbinate, who decides who is a Jew and who is an appropriate rabbi. I would prefer to see a greater separation of state and synagogue in Israel, and for the government to get out of religious areas and leave it to private choice.”
But although Gantz said during the election that he would implement all aspects of the Kotel agreement that were put on hold by Netanyahu — including the establishment of a special statutory body responsible for administering a new egalitarian prayer space and creating one main entrance to all parts of the Kotel — his party’s platform does not call for recognizing the Reform and Conservative movements or for permitting Conservative and Reform weddings and conversions.
The president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, said in an email that “whoever becomes Israel’s next prime minister, the leaders of the Conservative/Masorti movement will work with his government to promote the ideals of religious freedom — as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence — for our Masorti brothers and sisters and all Jews in Israel.”
Asked whether the Conservative movement believes it would be possible to work with Gantz and his party to further the non-Orthodox agenda it would like to see pursued, she replied: “We certainly hope so.”
But whether Gantz or Netanyahu will be tapped by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to try to put together a coalition government was not immediately known, and Rabbi Terry Bookman, author of the book, “Beyond Survival: How Judaism Can Thrive in the 21st Century,” said, “Coalition politics is very different and most American Jews don’t get the difference. Imagine if America did not have a two-party system but rather was based on issues. If an anti-abortion party got 10 percent of the vote and it was in the coalition, its views would have to be adhered to. In Israel where there are many small parties with a single issue, they hold outsized power because they control many seats. They are small and can’t demand too much, but they can control enough to topple a coalition.”
Asked about the changes Gantz said he would make in the Orthodox monopoly in Israel — including permitting public transportation and the opening of stores on the Sabbath — Bookman replied: “American Jews have to remember that he is an Israeli leader, not an American leader, and he is juggling many different things like all Israeli politicians.”
Regarding Netanyahu’s pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, the rabbi said it “would destroy any hope for a two-state solution. You either have 2 to 3 million Palestinians under full Israeli military control — which would be non-democratic and openly immoral — or you annex the entire West Bank and have a binational state with the Arab minority becoming 40 percent of the state and threatening the very nature of the Jewish state. … Either one would be difficult for Israel.”
Emily Mayer, 27, a founder of IfNotNow, a movement of young Jews opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, said she fears that if Netanyahu is able to assemble a coalition government, “we are going to see the same fights and divides between the American-Jewish community and the Israeli government. Young American Jews who have known only Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s] government will try to push for an honest conversation about why we should support a government that keeps millions of Palestinians under occupation.”
Asked about Gantz, she said he “wants to maintain the status quo and I don’t think young Jews are under any illusion that his government will put an end to the occupation. He said his commitment is to maintain security over that territory.”
That view was echoed by Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for J Street, who said “another Netanyahu term would be a disaster for the priorities of the American-Jewish community when it comes to Jewish pluralism, upholding democratic institutions, and pursuing a two-state solution and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Asked about a government led by Gantz, Bayroff said it is “hard to know exactly where Gantz stands on all the issues. He is not associated with hard right-wing views when it comes to the Palestinians, and we have to see what his governing coalition would look like and the policy choices he would make. But it would be a welcome relief from the Netanyahu era, where the pursuit of a far-right agenda has just gotten worse and worse and more out of touch with American Jews.”
Gelman of the IPF noted that Gantz has made “some very positive statements about the importance of the Israel-diaspora relationship and the need to rebuild and strengthen it. I would welcome moves on his part to improve the relationship. … The vast majority of the American-Jewish community identifies with the Reform and Conservative movements and would welcome a prime minister who would legitimize the way those communities practice Judaism.”
On the other hand, Gelman observed that Netanyahu “has in recent years shown more of an affinity toward Evangelical Christians and the Orthodox community — which he perceives to be his base of support going forward. And that is misguided on his part. Look who advocates for Israel on Capitol Hill — a wide swath of the Jewish community, and he can’t afford to discount 85 percent of American Jews.”
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism, noted in an email that her movement, too, has been on record as supporting a two-state solution and that annexation of the settlements would upset the majority of its members and risk Israel becoming an apartheid state.
Asked if the Trump administration might try to dissuade Netanyahu from annexing part of the West Bank for fear it would interfere with its peace plan, she said he might “if his plan calls for two contiguous states.”
Should Netanyahu assemble a new coalition government, Waxman said the American-Jewish community should “focus on advocating for the democratic ideals enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and redouble our efforts to support Israeli organizations that are working tirelessly for human rights, Jewish religious pluralism, and a shared society.”
Asked about Gantz’s desire to pursue a “diplomatic process” with the Palestinians, she pointed out that he is “running as a center or even center-right alternative to Netanyahu, so he is probably trying to thread a rhetorical needle in his comments on negotiations with the Palestinians. It’s very hard to read between the lines of his public statements on this question.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.