If Benny Gantz succeeds in forming the next Israeli government, he knows he will have to turn his attention to hearing the deep rifts in Israeli society left by his predecessor’s polarizing rule by extremists. It is a battle the former IDF chief of staff and leader of the centrist Blue-White Party will be fighting on two fronts.
There’s another deep fissure that will require all his healing skills: shrinking the widening chasm between Israel and American Jewry, one created in no small part by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The other day a Jewish friend asked me if American Jews and the Democratic party would continue – or even accelerate – their drift from commitment to the Jewish state if Netanyahu gets a record fifth term and builds another coalition anchored by his extremist allies. And then he asked if Israel elects a centrist government that is serious about peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, will the Republicans and evangelical Christians desert the Jewish state?
As Israeli leaders go through the throes of trying to create a new coalition, they are focused inward and last thing on their mind may be rebuilding the nation’s deteriorating bipartisan consensus in America, its best friend and defender. That would be a mistake.
Under Netanyahu the Israeli government has embraced evangelical Christians and largely Orthodox and politically conservative Jews, seemingly unworried that liberal American Jews and the Democratic party, which most Jews support, have drifted away.
Netanyahu has wrenched Israel away from the historic bipartisan consensus on Israel to forge a close and very partisan alliance with a president and a Republican party that three out of four American Jewish voters oppose as antithetical to the issues and principles they support, both domestic and international.
While Americans overwhelmingly view Israel favorably, that does not extend to that country’s government, which is viewed unfavorably by the majority. The younger the voters, regardless of party, the less inclined they are to have a positive view of today’s Israel.
Jews voted over 75% Democratic in the last two elections and that number could grow next year. President Trump’s favors for Israel – including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem – apparently have not changed things, which led Trump to accuse Jewish voters of being disloyal. His calling the Democratic party anti-Israel and anti-Jewish backfired, especially when Netanyahu essentially tried to ignore the whole balagan.
His fear of offending Trump only serves to further widen the chasm and shows it cannot be repaired until he is out of office, and even then, it will take a great deal of work.
Netanyahu shares many of the traits that are so offensive in Trump, including his demonizing of critics as traitors and his war on the media. And like Trump, he is cozying up to anti-Semites, human rights abusers and autocrats in Russia, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Brazil, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.
Polls and reports on political contributions show Jews are strongly supporting Democratic presidential candidates who no longer simply mouth the old pro-Israel platitudes.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and others have indicated that as president they would consider conditioning US aid on changing Israeli policies on peace, settlements and treatment of the Palestinians. Netanyahu didn’t win a friend in Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden; when Biden was vice president, Netanyahu sought to humiliate him during a 2010 visit by timing his arrival with an announcement of expanded West Bank settlements.
Gantz has a lot to clean up if he is PM. The Democrats won’t abandon Israel, but that relationship needs repairs, starting with “substantially” changing the rhetoric and openness on both sides, advised Steve Rabinowitz, a veteran Democratic consultant.
Netanyahu made no secret of his animosity toward the two most recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He made alliances with Republicans to undermine their policies, notably on peace and Iranian nuclear ambitions.
The next prime minister will need to come to Washington early on to establish a close working relationship with the administration while avoiding plunging into partisan politics, as Netanyahu did.
After the next government takes office, Trump is expected to unveil his peace “deal of the century.” According to most accounts, it is likely to fall with a dull thud. It has been designed with Bibi in mind by two of his loyalists, first son-in-law Jared Kushner and Amb. David Friedman, a pair of pro-settlement Orthodox Jews. Little wonder the Palestinians have preemptively rejected it.
Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz has said he believes the Palestinians are partners for peacemaking, although he has been vague about just what approach he has in mind. Netanyahu, if he is leader of the opposition, will continue to undermine any peace negotiations.
It will take a lot of work by a new prime minister the rift between Israel and American Jewry is to be repaired. Here are some steps he should consider:
- Meet the Jews. I’m not talking about stroking the wealthy donors and the machers in the board rooms of the moribund organizations and oxymoronic Jewish leaders who speak mostly for themselves. Get around to the communities that still love Israel but not its government. Do a lot of listening.
- Remember the word of Aretha Franklin: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Show that Israel respects the legitimacy of all strains of Judaism. Start by reviving the deal Bibi reneged upon to recognize Reform and Conservative Jewish rights at the Western Wall.
- Repeal the “Jewish Nation-State Law” that makes non-Jews second class citizens in their own country, and rejects Jews not converted by rabbis approved by the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly.
- Show you are serious about making peace with the Palestinians and keeping long-standing promises to improve the quality of life for Israeli Arabs.
To answer the question my friend posed at the top of this column, I don’t think either party will abandon Israel, but that is not enough. Bridging the widening chasms—between the major political parties here and between American Jews and the Jewish state — will take a lot of work and a lot of listening. It can’t be done overnight but, as the Chinese proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.