A Big Night for Netanyahu Is a Letdown for Liberal Jews


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong showing in the country’s election Monday bolstered the hopes of U.S. groups that support the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while disappointing leftist and centrist groups that support a two-state solution and religious pluralism.

With 90 percent of the vote counted (the final results are slated to be published next week), Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 36 seats compared to its chief rival, Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party, which won 32 seats.

That gave Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc 59 seats, giving him a clearer path to woo two lawmakers from opposition parties to his bloc and form a government with a narrow majority of 61 seats, including the religious parties.

For hawkish groups, the election was a clear sign that Israeli voters are rejecting the politics of the left.

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said the election demonstrated that Israelis “very clearly don’t believe that

[Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas is a person interested in peace. In fact, the only Jewish party that ran thinking it had a

[Palestinian] partner for peace suffered a devastating defeat that left them with only seven seats, down from 10 in the last election.” He was referring to the Labor-Gesher-Meretz coalition.

Farley, whose organization represents a network of Orthodox synagogues, agreed with liberal groups that a new government is unlikely to change the status quo on issues that have animated opposition from liberal American Jews, including egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and the Orthodox monopoly on overseeing conversion to Judaism.   

The “vast majority of Israeli Jews, if they are not Orthodox [and go to synagogue at all], go to Orthodox shuls and are traditional,” said Weiss. “The people who live there need to make decisions over their lives. I don’t think we will see any significant changes on those issues.”

By contrast, centrist and liberal Jewish leaders see a further erosion in Israel-Diaspora relations if the Orthodox keep their hold on control of Jewish religious life in Israel.

“I don’t think this election was about religious pluralism, but religious pluralism will suffer as a result,” said Sarrae Crane, executive director of Mercaz USA, the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement.

Rabbi Mickie Goldstein, president of the Israel region of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, worries that another right-wing government will result in “more religion being pushed” in different ways.

“If there is another right-wing government, then Netanyahu — even if he pays lip service to the Conservative and Reform Jews — will say he can’t do this or that because of his coalition,” he said. “And that is not real leadership. He’s in a very weak spot personally and will have to give in to various religious or right-wing requests so he will not have to stand trial” on corruption charges.

In two previous elections in the past 11 months, no party was able to form a government. But the incomplete results clearly “empowered” Netanyahu and his Likud Party, which had won only 32 seats in last September’s election, according to Shira Efron, a policy adviser for the Israel Policy Forum and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“It was an amazing personal victory” for Netanyahu, she said. “He clearly energized the base when just a few weeks ago the country was sort of sleepy” over the prospect of another election.

Some 71 percent of the country’s 6.4 million eligible voters went to the polls.

Efron said Netanyahu’s dream would be to be able to “form a narrow, right-wing, hawkish government similar to what we have now. And if he is able to do that, it would not bode well for religious pluralism.”

Premier on trial

In addition, liberal groups are concerned about Netanyahu’s upcoming trial on corruption charges and what it means not only for the rule of law, but for the future of the two-state solution they support.

If he is able to form such a government, one of the first things Netanyahu is expected to do is to try to change the law so that he would not have to stand trial on corruption charges while he serves as prime minister. His trial is slated to begin March 17.

Such efforts worry Rabbi Maurice Harris, the Israel affairs specialist for the Reconstructing Judaism movement, who said he is concerned for Israel’s “checks and balances.”

“Israel’s democracy showed great strength by holding multiple elections, but it is being dismantled by the authoritarian behavior of Netanyahu,” he said. “He has spent a year attacking the attorney general he appointed, and saying in public that you should not trust the police and the justice system. He has done tremendous damage to the separation of powers and the independence of law enforcement in Israel.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, spiritual leader of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan and former executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, agreed.

“It is very difficult for the American Jewish community to embrace an indicted leader of a country,” said Hirsch. “I hope the process finds him innocent … [but] the prime minister, for most American Jews, is a deeply divisive figure both on the religious pluralism issue and with respect to his commitment to annex the territories immediately upon the formation of a government. That is deeply troubling to the American Jewish community.”

A trade for annexation?

Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners might change the law for him provided he carries out his promise to begin annexing parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu made the promise after the Trump administration’s peace plan sanctioned such a move. That would not only do irreparable damage a two-state solution, but to the Israel-Diaspora relationship, liberal groups said.

“The American Jewish community is supportive of two states [Israeli and Palestinian], which requires an end to occupation,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “I think we would see a clash between American Jews who are committed to Israel and to the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, and an Israeli government committed to building a right-wing fortress that cares only about its own political future.”

“Our movement is completely against unilateral annexation of West Bank territory by Israel, and if a new Israeli government does that, it would be disappointing and painful,” said Reconstructing Judaism’s Rabbi Harris.

Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, also believes that if Netanyahu begins annexing parts of the West Bank, “the relationship with the Jewish community [here] will deteriorate precipitously.”

Whether Netanyahu proceeds immediately with annexation is debatable, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, because “right now forming a functioning government that would send a message of continuity and stability is most important.” 

Monday’s election demonstrated that “Israelis are standing behind him — his constituency is very strong,” observed Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. Half of Israeli voters “think Netanyahu is the safest bet despite his indictments.”

Steinberg added that if he can, Netanyahu will try to “quash” the charges against him, something that is not unheard of in Western democracies — including the United States.