The former Israel correspondent for National Public Radio said Israelis’ frustration with politics is increasing, and the percentage of people voting is decreasing.
At the same time, said Linda Gradstein, “there is a sense among Israelis that they want a change.”
Gradstein, now Middle East bureau chief of The Media Line, spoke Feb. 15 at Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pa., while she was visiting family in nearby Yardley.
Her talk focused on the elections in Israel, to be held March 17, when she said the focus for the Zionist Union — a center-left slate led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni — will be on economics.
“Many Israelis in the middle class can’t make ends meet; salaries are a quarter to a third of here, and the cost of living is higher, except for higher education,” she said.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, however, the primary issue is security and the danger of Iran becoming a nuclear power.
That issue, in turn, raises issues that extend beyond Israel, she said. Israel and the West fear that Saudi Arabia may become a nuclear power as a counterweight to Iran. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, has resulted in a coalition of moderate Muslim states — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf states (as well as Israel, in the background) — which realizes “that the Islamic State is as much a danger to them as it is to Israel.”
Any predictions about the coming election, she said, must take into account that Israel is a parliamentary system, where people vote for party lists rather than individual candidates. Such a system allows “Israelis of different backgrounds and viewpoints to have a voice in the Knesset.”
To form a majority government, a party or coalition must control at least 61 seats. With Likud and the Zionist Union neck and neck, Gradstein said, the determining factor would be either party’s ability to build a coalition. The only way for the Zionist Union to do so, she said, would be to invite the Arab parties to join — something that has never before been done.
Netanyahu, who might find coalition building easier, could join up with the religious and right-wing parties or perhaps form a unity government with the Zionist Union, Gradstein said.
On the Palestinian front, she said, an announced boycott of Israeli products will hurt them more than Israel. Gradstein did, however, think Israel is vulnerable to BDS, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. “I think BDS is a delegitimization not just of Israel’s policies or its settlement policies, but of Israel as a country,” she said.
Gradstein also dealt with accusations of media bias with regard to Israel coverage, often leveled at NPR by pro-Israel “watchdog” groups like CAMERA.
“The question for me is context — can you supply context as a reporter?” she said, adding that, for her, balance over time is more important than objectivity per se. “I don’t think every article has to reflect all opinions; [rather] are you getting a nuanced picture over time?”
Replying to a question suggesting the media don’t hold the Palestinians accountable, Gradstein said that the two sides are equally responsible for the lack of progress and both lack the necessary leadership to move forward. On the Israeli side, she cited Netanyahu in 2011 nixing a potential deal negotiated by then President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and said the Palestinians since 2006 have been too involved in their own internal problems with Hamas to negotiate in earnest.
Gradstein said limits on expressing diverse opinions about Israel within the Jewish community have frustrated young Jews on American campuses. “I am concerned that the American-Jewish community may be losing the younger generation by not being willing to open up the conversation,” she said.
Brothers of Israel’s Rabbi Aaron Gaber explained to a reporter that Gradstein offered to speak at the synagogue while she was visiting family in Yardley.
“I want to broaden and widen the dialogue [about Israel] that occurs within the Jewish community, at least in my piece of the Jewish community,” he said.
The program was supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and cosponsored by Brothers of Israel, Congregation Kol Emet, Grace Point Church, Congregation Beth El, and Shir Ami.
After the talk, Leon Weissman of Yardley said, “It is good to hear the perspective of someone there, who lives it and breathes it.”
Ellen Weiner, also of Yardley, said, “I think it is truly amazing having someone of her caliber here, whether you agree with her or not.”
Russ Massey of Levittown and a congregant at the cosponsoring Grace Point Church, expressed surprise that Gradstein was saying “that Israel could be a part of the peace problem when it seems to me they are primarily defending their rights to exist.”