American Jews Should Stay Out of Israeli Elections
by Mitchell Bard
American Jews have long touted Israel as the lone democracy in the Middle East, and noted that it shares the same values and interests as the United States. Suddenly, however, some liberal Jews find Israeli democracy upsetting because it does not produce the results they prefer. They project their views onto the Israeli public, and are frustrated when it turns out that Israelis see their lives, values, and concerns entirely differently.
This attitude has been on full display since the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu, as his American critics have all but said this is the end of the world as we know it. Their primary beef is that they believe the prime minister’s policies will prevent a two-state solution.
They ignore that Israelis are not clamoring for a two-state solution. In fact, the Palestinian issue was a non-factor in this election. The two parties most associated with withdrawing from the West Bank, Meretz and Labor, were trounced. Together they received fewer than 350,000 votes (eight percent). In fact, the Labor Party, seen as responsible for the now discredited Oslo process, is barely staving off extinction.
Neither the Arab parties nor the far right are interested in a two-state solution. And what about the party that tied Likud for the most seats in the Knesset — Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party? Its platform called for strengthening the settlement blocs, no further disengagement, retaining the Jordan Valley, and ensuring a united Jerusalem. It did not endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.
Critics don’t ask why the Palestinian issue was irrelevant in the campaign. Could it be that Israelis don’t see this as a “central question” for their future? Or is it possible they did not see the election in the same apocalyptic terms as liberal American Jews? Perhaps Israelis’ formulation of what the future will look like is not restricted to a binary choice of a Palestinian state or the end of democracy and Israel’s Jewish character.
Israelis are not clamoring for a withdrawal from the West Bank, because they see no peace partner. After the Gaza disengagement, they learned that “land for peace” was a fantasy. They have no desire to allow the West Bank to become Hamastan. Will that change if the Palestinians ever produce a leader who can convince them otherwise? I believe it will; however, so long as the leader of the Palestinians refuses to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, rewards terrorists for killing Jews, uses the media to incite violence, demands that Palestinian refugees return to “their homes,” and teaches children that Israel should not exist, Israelis will remain unwilling to cede additional territory.
How else do you explain the collapse of the peace camp? When was the last time you read about thousands of Israelis rallying for “peace now”? Israelis are no less interested in peace today than they were at anytime in the past. The difference is that most no longer share the naivete of certain American Jews, who don’t understand that Israelis live in the Mideast and not the Midwest.
Much of the hysteria following the election stemmed from Netanyahu’s statements during an interview. Here’s what he said when asked why he hasn’t annexed the settlement blocs in the West Bank: “Will we go to the next phase? The answer is yes. We will go to the next phase to extend Israeli sovereignty. … I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements. … From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”
First, anyone with an ounce of political acumen understands Netanyahu was pandering to the right-wing because he desperately needed their votes to win. Second, every settler today is Israeli. Third, when Netanyahu says he won’t uproot anyone, he is reflecting the mood of most Israelis who saw what happened when the Gaza settlers were forced to evacuate. Even the most anti-settlement Israelis were moved by the human heartbreak of the disengagement. Fourth, even Yitzhak Rabin was not willing to transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians, explicitly stating in his final speech that they would not be allowed a state.
Finally, would it surprise anyone if Netanyahu failed to deliver on this campaign promise? It would not be the first promise by a candidate that went unfulfilled. Critics have been claiming that “right-wing extremist” prime ministers would annex the West Bank to create “Greater Israel” since Menachem Begin’s campaign. Yet, here we are — after Begin, Shamir, Sharon, and Netanyahu — without Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank or Gaza. Hysterics ignore that it was Begin who dismantled settlements and gave up the Sinai, while offering autonomy to the Palestinians. It was Sharon, the “father of the settlement movement,” who evacuated Gaza and settlements in Samaria. And it was Netanyahu who reached agreements with Yasser Arafat to withdraw from 80 percent of Hebron and another 13 percent of the West Bank.
Israel is indeed a great democracy — in some ways more democratic than the United States. Consider that a record 47 parties registered to compete in the election and 11 won seats in the Knesset. There is far more diversity of opinion represented in the electoral process and the government in Israel than in our two-party system. Yes, coalition government is messy, but they do get things done. I would argue Israel’s government is not as dysfunctional as ours has become.
When Israeli governments fall, it is almost always because of religious issues (Netanyahu’s fell over drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army) rather than other domestic or foreign policy matters. It is time that the aforementioned American Jews ended their paternalistic treatment of Israelis. They need to stop presuming, as the Arabists do, that they know what is best for Israel and must save Israelis from themselves. Israel’s democracy is healthy and to be celebrated, not denigrated when the majority of Israelis disagree with the desires of a minority of American Jews.
Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.