The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American Jews may wish booting Netanyahu will fix Israel’s problems. It won’t.

The crisis in liberal Zionism isn’t going away, no matter who winds up as Israel’s next prime minister.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressees his supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday after elections this week. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Although Benjamin Netanyahu lost Tuesday’s election, it’s too early to tell whether he will be cast out of Israeli politics after a record 10 straight years as prime minister. Israel’s do-over election resulted in a deadlock between Netanyahu’s Likud and the anti-Netanyahu Likud spinoff Blue and White party, led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, who looks increasingly likely to be Israel’s next prime minister. The fact that Netanyahu failed to secure a majority in parliament is a source of reprieve for many in Israel and especially for many American Jews, who are also largely Democrats — as they have come to resent Netanyahu almost as much as they resent President Trump.

But no matter what the governing coalition will look like, the right has still won this election.

American Jewish organizations have largely remained silent for now, as there is still no obvious winner, but they clearly welcome Netanyahu’s exit. Some headlines are already declaring that American Jews won this election. An Israeli government without Netanyahu in charge could assure American Jews that Israel is a vibrant democracy and go back to hoping for peace while avoiding confrontation with Israel’s apartheid-like one-state reality — which was there before Netanyahu and will be there after him.

The end of the Netanyahu era won’t mean the end of Israeli settlements or occupation by any means. As Haaretz’s Noa Landau wrote, Israelis who voted for Blue and White, which got only two seats more than Likud, want “the nicer right-wing in power.” Nevertheless, as 972 Magazine’s Haggai Matar pointed out, Netanyahu’s apparent demise is still a reason to rejoice, as it would expel from power the man who has made racism and incitement against Palestinian citizens, human rights organizations, journalists and the judiciary his defining qualities.

No matter how many Palestinians vote in Israeli elections, we still can’t win

American Jews, who are largely pluralist and liberal and who favor a two-state solution, have watched as Netanyahu pushed Israel into an explicitly anti-democratic, anti-Arab, illiberal place; they watched as he became Trump’s biggest ally and fan on the globe, disregarding his normalization of anti-Semitism and remaining silent after Trump called most Jews “disloyal.” It has become increasingly easy for American Jews to criticize Israeli policies under Netanyahu and distance themselves from the country. The percentage of American Jews who agreed that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew” dropped from 70 percent in 2018 to 62 percent this year, according to a survey on Jewish public opinion in the U.S. commissioned by the American Jewish Committee. The percentage believing that “Israel should be willing to dismantle all the settlements” as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians jumped from 15 percent last year to 25 percent this year.

On Election Day, Netanyahu not only reached the zenith of his demonization of Palestinian citizens (and the democratic process) by saying it was a threat that Palestinians were exercising their right to vote, he also broke several election laws by giving interviews to the media that day, among other violations. (That’s unrelated to the hearing on a potential indictment on three charges of bribery and fraud that he faces in two weeks). Organizations like the American Jewish Committee, the Democratic Majority for Israel and AIPAC spent Tuesday tweeting in praise of Israel’s “free and fair” elections and boasting it is the only democracy in the Middle East. At one point, the Democratic Majority for Israel even condemned Netanyahu, tweeting that his “attempt to brand Israel’s Arab citizens as enemies is repugnant.” AJC staff member Seffi Kogen went so far as to call a retweet by Netanyahu’s son Yair of a photo purporting to show high Arab turnout in Israel (but revealed to be a photo from Istanbul) “racist.” By now, it’s a no-brainer for liberal American Jews to call out Netanyahu, just as it’s a no-brainer to call out Trump.

Anti-Semitism doesn't bother Netanyahu if it comes from his political allies

For the last 10 years, Netanyahu has epitomized the crisis in liberal Zionism, wherein Jews are expected to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” as Peter Beinart wrote nearly a decade ago about the American Jewish establishment. The question is, without Netanyahu to blame anymore, will U.S. Jews — and the Democratic Party that so many of them support — still feel compelled to criticize Israel, take steps to hold it accountable and push to end its military control over millions of Palestinians? The election results don’t make that seem so likely.

Like the more than 1 million Israelis who voted for Blue and White, many American Jews are looking to Benny Gantz to “save” Israel and get it back on track. But Blue and White’s platform on matters of national security and Palestinians is virtually identical to Likud’s — which makes sense, considering that many of its members defected from Netanyahu’s party in response to his corruption charges and their push to end the Orthodox monopoly over civil issues like marriage and military conscription. Gantz campaigned on sending Gaza “back to the Stone Age”; he has called for maintaining a “united” Jerusalem and has notably not endorsed a Palestinian state or a two-state solution, such that his willingness to enter negotiations with Palestinians is thus far nothing but lip service; and after Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley, Gantz claimed the prime minister stole that idea from him. There is only one issue on which Gantz is significantly different from Netanyahu: religious pluralism, which is one of the most important issues for American Jews, on which they are more willing to be unequivocally vocal about than on Israel’s continued human rights violations.

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Gantz and his political partner Yair Lapid campaigned on an anti-religious platform that promises a secular government without the ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu, who has tied his fate to support from ultra-Orthodox parties, canceled a decision in 2017 to allow for a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall, while Gantz has promised to honor it. As Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish organization in North America, told Haaretz on Thursday, the prospect of a secular unity government is very exciting for Americans: “The previous government caused enormous harm and made it more difficult for lovers and supporters of Israel to promote our important relationship. We will be happy to work with the next government to put things on a better track — and a unity government would be best situated to do that.”

In that sense, Gantz is the perfect leader for many mainstream American Jews: He represents a strong liberal Zionist military persona, who champions secularism and pays lip service to peace while continuing policies that undermine it. He’s like the 2009 version of Netanyahu. Such a figure allows liberal American Jews to gloss over the reality: that — with or without Netanyahu — de facto Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank and a de facto single state, dominated, apartheid-like, by what is rapidly becoming a Jewish minority, has become a consensus position in contemporary Israel. At the end of the day American Jews, like many Israelis, must realize that the future there isn’t about whether Netanyahu is a tyrant. It’s about whether the majority of Israelis are.