WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Feb. 6 (JTA) – As the polls trickled in here from Israel’s prime ministerial elections Tuesday, Lena Dunner breathed a sigh of relief.
Ariel Sharon was emerging as the winner over Ehud Barak by a landslide. And that was exactly what Dunner had been hoping to hear.
“If you’re naughty and have a good teacher, people will behave,” Dunner said, referring to the tougher stance she expects Sharon to take in the Middle East peace process. “It pays to make a change.”
It was a sentiment echoed by the majority of Palm Beach County residents interviewed.
Here, in the county that created a scandal after the snafus with the U.S. presidential ballots in November – as elsewhere around the country – American Jews expressed sympathy for the decision Israelis had to make as they voted for prime minister under the scrutiny of the world.
On one hand was Sharon, who promised peace with security during his campaign. On the other hand was Barak, who despite the recent weeks of violence continued to offer a softer, kinder approach to peace.
“It’s so hard to say what you would do when you’re not there,” said Georgette Riley of West Palm Beach, who was visiting her mother at a senior center here.
Even so, Riley believes she would have voted for Sharon.
“I feel like he’s going to take more care and not give so much to the Arabs,” she said. “Barak was too nice. We’re not dealing with people that will listen. Their hatred is too much.”
Riley’s pro-Sharon sentiments were shared thousands of miles away, in California.
If Israelis living in Los Angeles had been able to vote, Sharon would have earned about 80 percent of the vote, according to two knowledgeable Israelis on opposite sides of the political fence.
“Israelis abroad are even more right wing than at home. It’s easier to fight Israel’s wars from a distance,” said Gal Shor, editor in chief of the Hebrew-language weekly Shalom L.A.
Isaac Benyamini, owner of a travel agency and former president of the Hebrew-speaking B’nai B’rith Shalom Lodge, agreed with the estimate but, in contrast to Shor, applauded the results.
“Sharon’s election is exactly what Israel needs,” Benyamini said. “We need a hard-liner. We can’t hold peace talks under enemy fire.”
Not all U.S. Jews agree.
At the Kaplan Jewish Community Center in West Palm Beach, Sharon Modell of West Palm Beach worried that Sharon’s hawkish views would further damage the fragile peace process.
“Sharon is a warrior,” she said. “I don’t think Barak went wrong. I think his method of peace has more meaning.”
Mirroring the low voter turnout in Israel, few people gathered at election events in Los Angeles and suburban Detroit.
Stephanie Greenbaum, 56, of West Bloomfield, Mich., was leaving a Detroit-area Jewish Community Center health club when she saw a group gathered around an overhead projector showing Israeli news Web sites.
Greenbaum said she is very much in favor of Barak and the peace process, but doesn’t know enough about Sharon to vilify him, as others in the peace camp have done. She thinks of him as an extremist only because that is what she has read in the media.
“I’ve always liked Barak, but a lot of people feel he’s given too much away,” she said. “I’m a little bit nervous. I just hope there’s not going to be more violence because Sharon’s in.”
Greenbaum, a native of Great Britain, compares the violence in the Middle East to that in Northern Ireland.
“Will it ever be solved?” she asked.
Then, answering her own question, she said, “Arafat wasn’t getting along very well with Barak. So can it be any worse? We don’t know. We shall see.”
Meanwhile, most North American Jewish groups welcomed Sharon’s victory, saying they look forward to working with the prime minister-elect.
In addition, several groups called the election a victory for Israel’s democratic process and called on the Palestinians to return to the peace talks.
“The Palestinian Authority must now publicly declare its commitment to pursue true reconciliation with the State of Israel and its intention to engage in negotiations with the new Israeli government,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement.
Americans for Peace Now took a different tack, focusing on the United States’ response to Sharon’s victory.
In its statement, the pro-peace group said Sharon’s election “signals the beginning of a new and challenging chapter” in the peace process and called on the “Bush administration to actively work to ensure that the current cycle of violence comes to an end.”
Thus far, President Bush and his advisers have adopted a hands-off policy toward Middle East peace, saying the Israelis and Palestinians need to chart their own course.
(JTA Senior Editor Howard Lovy in Detroit and JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)