As Coalition Talks Begin, U.S. Jews Seen Welcoming Possible Unity Government


Informal contacts between Israeli parties began soon after the polls closed Tuesday night as exit polls suggested that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party holding exclusive power over the country may be over, making it more likely that a unity government will be formed.

Based upon exit poll numbers just two hours after the polls closed, David Makovsky, director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it appeared that “the most likely scenario is that there will be some form of power sharing arrangement.”

But Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition Blue and White Party, has said he would not sit in a unity government with Likud if Netanyahu remained its leader while corruption charges were pending against him. Gantz has also spoken of forming a “secular unity government” without the ultra-Orthodox parties that are an integral part of Netanyahu’s current coalition government. That’s something most American Jewish leaders would welcome, in part  because of the strong hold the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has over people’s personal lives. Though at this early stage, post-election, it may be wishful thinking on the part of liberal American Jews.

“There are serious issues with the Rabbinate having such authority over people,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “For many Israelis, that involves the right to get married as you wish. … Religion is one of the democratic issues that for sure are at stake. And the next government of Israel should be working towards a long-term peace solution that guarantees self-determination and human rights for both Palestinians and Jews … and to move towards a long-term peace agreement.”

That is one possible scenario that might play out if a suggestion of Makovsky’s comes to fruition. He said it might be possible to convince Gantz to sit in a unity government with Netanyahu as prime minister if President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited peace plan and Netanyahu embraced it and promised to begin peace talks with the Palestinians based on that plan.

“Once it is clear that there would be no other alternative, the peace plan would be the vehicle to try to break the Gantz veto,” Makovsky said. “There is no doubt [Israeli President Reuven] Rivlin would weigh in and support that in the name of peace and getting a deal done with the Palestinians.”

It is also possible that Netanyahu might step down as prime minister if all charges against him were dropped in the three cases of fraud for which he faces indictment next month.

He has decided to cancel his trip here next week to address the United Nations General Assembly, preferring to remain in Israel to deal with attempts to form a new government.

It is possible that Gantz would agree to rotate the premiership with Netanyahu. But Natan Sachs, director for the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, stressed that Netanyahu would have to be prime minister first in order to avoid possible indictment. And he said Netanyahu’s pre-election pledge to annex the Jordan Valley and all existing settlements would be “off the table in the short-term if there is a government that includes Blue and White.”

Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party received enough votes to win between 8 and 10 seats in the Knesset, making his party’s support crucial in forming a new government. He told supporters within hours after the polls closed that his party wants to see a national unity government because the country is in a “state of emergency … from an economic and security point of view. It is incumbent on the country to have as wide a government as possible. … I hope each party declares it will form a liberal, broad unity government.”

At Likud headquarters in Expo Tel Aviv, Middle Eastern music blared as  Moti Yerucham, 47, a building contractor, expressed disappointment that exit polls showed Netanyahu and his allies not getting enough votes to capture at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

“It’s a tie at this point,” said the Likud activist. “But it’s actually a little bit of a loss. At this point we have 57 [according to one exit poll], but it would have been better if we had 59. We’ll have to wait a little bit.”

His wait-and-see attitude was reinforced by the knowledge that in prior elections, Likud’s actual vote tallies had always improved when compared with the exit polls. Israelis have gone to sleep thinking that a center or left-wing party had the advantage, only to wake up to find that Likud had prevailed.

“This time [the possibility of a reversal] looks a little bit more difficult,” Yerucham conceded.

American Jewish leaders watched this election with more than passing interest, in part because of Gantz’s pledge just two weeks before the election to form a “secular unity government” by inviting Likud (without Netanyahu), Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu and the Labor parties to join his coalition government. It should be noted, though, that many Likud officials have pledged their fealty to Netanyahu.

“We cannot separate Judaism from the Jewish state,” Gantz stressed, but said he preferred to permit more secular communities to observe the Sabbath as they wished.

“We would support any moves by a future Israeli government to loosen the grip the Rabbinate has on religious affairs and personal status issues,” said Rabbi Maurice Harris, an associate director at Reconstructing Judaism, formerly the Reconstructionist movement. “If there ends up being a secular unity government, and they follow through on guaranteeing religious pluralism at the Kotel and recognize conversions of the non-Orthodox movements, et cetera, we would be incredibly surprised and pleased – surprised only because it seems like a really elusive thing in Israeli politics.”

Uriel Abulof, a visiting professor at Cornell University’s Government Department and a senior lecturer of politics at Tel Aviv University, noted that 40 percent of Israelis identify as “secular” Jews. In Israel, that means most of them have a brit for their male children, fast on Yom Kippur, participate in a Passover seder, and many even keep kosher, which is “easy to do in Israel.”

“Lieberman is trying to tap into the secular by saying they are endangered by the ultra-religious and the zealous national religious [Jews],” he said. “He told voters that Netanyahu … was putting secular Jews in danger.”

The growing political power of the ultra-Orthodox has translated into such things as gender segregation in the military and increased religious content in secular schools, which some families oppose.

“Lieberman has been appealing to secularists who are immigrants or descendants from the former Soviet Union and those who are not considered administratively Jewish – about 20 percent of immigrants are entitled to Israeli citizenship but are not administratively defined as Jews because their mother was not Jewish but they had a Jewish grandparent,” Abulof explained.

The outreach to secular Jews appears to have worked because support for Lieberman’s party increased in pre-election polls. Those numbers caught Gantz’s eye and two weeks ago he issued his promise to form a “secular unity government,” according to Makovsky.

Other parties too are touting their belief in religious pluralism, a message that resonates especially well in Tel Aviv, which is seen as a bastion of secular liberalism. On Tuesday morning in the hours after the polls opened, a small pick-up truck with a sign reading “Crime Minister” boomed with a message to residents around Rothschild Boulevard and the Habima national theater in Tel Aviv: “Take five minutes. Every vote is important. Every one of our votes is the future of us all.”

With their 6-month-old baby in a stroller at the fashionable Lehmanina cafe across from Habima Square, Gal Zehavi and his wife, Meital, enjoyed a morning drink after having voted. They said they voted for the left-wing Democratic Camp amid worry that freedom of religion in Israel and freedom in general were at stake.

“I’m scared of religious coercion,” said Meital Zehavi. “Religion in Israel should be separate from the state. Religion shouldn’t have any place in the rules of the state.”

Moreover, the couple said, Tel Aviv’s culture of liberalism would be endangered by the continued influence of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties. They noted that theaters are being defunded by the government because of the political content of the shows they mount, and the government has sought to inject more religion into the curricula of secular schools.

“We are scared, even in Tel Aviv,” she said.

Just a few blocks away at the Likud Party headquarters and beneath a giant poster of Netanyahu and Trump, a candidate for Liberman’s right-wing party made a video appeal to secular supporters of the Likud. The party had abandoned the liberal values of its ideological forefather, Zeev Jabotinsky, contended the candidate, Eli Avidar, who is No. 4 on the Yisrael Beiteinu party list. He said that in refusing to enter the coalition after the April election, they “saved Tel Aviv from being more religious.”

The flip side of that sentiment could be found at a polling station near the Tel Aviv beach, where a cluster of posters and handouts featured images of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, a party of Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“The great rabbi promises: Your voting slip for Judgement Day,” read one placard.

Each specimen represented an impressive work of political copywriting.

“They won’t trample the Sabbath. Give them an answer at the ballot box!” read one poster, exploiting the double entendre of the Hebrew word teshuva, which means both “answer” and the “repentance” that every individual is obligated to undergo during the approaching Jewish New Year and Days of Atonement.

Gazing across the street at a cluster of Democratic Camp activists waving LGBT flags, Shas supporter Avraham Yizhakoff said, “They want to close synagogues and give up on the Western Wall. They want men and women to pray together instead of separately.”

Shas would work to preserve the country’s Jewish identity and prevent “assimilation,” he said.

On the eve of Election Day, in a butcher shop in the open air market in Ramla, a city on the coastal plain southeast of Tel Aviv, Shlomo Baruch agreed that the top issue of this election was about religion and state. As a result, Baruch said that he would vote for Shas for the first time ever, rather than Likud.

He rejected the complaints of secular Israelis who claim the ultra-Orthodox demand government subsidies while remaining in yeshivas rather than joining the work force. He contended that many ultra-Orthodox men work, and that religious nonprofits contribute social services to the general population. Taxes paid by the ultra-Orthodox help the government, just like any secular Israelis, he insisted.

Baruch added that he feared a change in government would threaten the lifestyle of the religious, and that they wouldn’t be able to live their lives in a “respectable fashion.”

“This a religious war — it’s not about democracy,” he insisted. “The question is: will there be religion or will there be no religion.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America, representing about 1.5 million Jews, said the issue of religion is a “matter of great importance to American Jews and they are pleased to see it so prominent [in this election]. … We are seeing a certain grassroots awareness [about it] that has not been evident for a long time, and it gives us some reasons for optimism.”

A change in the status quo would be a “very positive outcome of this election,” said Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “The average Israeli is very cognizant of what they call the coercion of the religious, particularly in matters of personal status like marriage, divorce and funerals. In Israeli history, they did not vote on that issue – they voted on the issue of peace. It was considered almost a luxury to be able to focus on that when there were so many other things at stake.”

She pointed out that “liberal Judaism is the only religious minority in Israel that doesn’t have religious freedom. … Generally speaking, religious freedom is enshrined in the law to protect minorities. So the fact it does not work the way it is supposed to work is actually terrible.”

Rabbi Andrea Merow of Elkins Park, Pa., a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive council, said that as an “eternal optimist” she believes “each election offers a new opportunity for change to happen. … We can get there and have a government that represents us. I would like to see a government that is equal to all streams [of Judaism].”

“One of our shuls [in Israel] had an accidental fire and they had trouble getting the local municipality to give them space [from which to operate],” she noted. “If it had been an Orthodox shul, there would not have been a problem.”

Another issue that is in the back of everyone’s mind are the three corruption charges hanging over Netanyahu’s head. Last February, Israel’s attorney general announced his decision to indict the prime minister, pending a long delayed final hearing with the prime minister and his lawyers that is scheduled in just three weeks.

Netanyahu was striving to win a “pure right-wing government that would better his chances to be insulated” from the charges, Makovsky noted on Monday.

To insulate himself from the charges, Netanyahu sought to have the Knesset pass a law that would bar his prosecution as long as he was prime minister. And because such a law is likely to be challenged in the courts, Netanyahu would like the Knesset to pass an override bill that would prevent Israel’s High Court of Justice from overturning any action of the Knesset.

“Such legislation would seriously degrade Israel’s status as an authentic democracy,” observed Rabbi Harris of Reconstructing Judaism. “You are talking about destroying one of the checks and balances in Israel’s government. It sounds dangerous to me, no matter who is prime minister.”

Stewart Ain is a staff writer; Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.