Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Jewish Experience
The most recent Israeli election, which took place April 9th, was surprising to many in the West, as Benjamin Netanyahu was once again elected as Prime Minister despite facing corruption charges. After his indictment, it seemed unlikely that the country would once again vote to keep his party in power. But the Israeli electorate did exactly that: Likud won a plurality of the vote, giving Netanyahu the opportunity to form the most radical, right-wing government the country has ever seen. The primary cause behind his victory is discussed by multiple media sources such as Haaretz and Time to be his ability to protect Israeli Jews against the continuing challenges they face in the Middle East, such as pressures from their Arab neighbors. While Israeli Jews are relatively content with Netanyahu’s election, the American Jewish response is conflicted. To an extent, American Jews feel alienated following his victory, due to the increasingly religious and nationalist character of the state of Israel. Any skepticism, however, is complicated by the fact that many American Jews are and have always been supportive of maintaining a strong system of defense for the Israeli state, which Netanyahu seems to do quite well.
Netanyahu’s rhetoric and past actions demonstrate that he is very serious about protecting Israel’s interests both in the Middle East and internationally—something that has been important to many American Jews, even those with no formal connection to Israel, for decades. However, Netanyahu is expected to form the most radical, far-right coalition government that Israel has ever seen, which would have serious implications for sensitive issues facing Israel. For example, with Netanyahu’s new right-wing government, the possibility of peace with Palestinians through a two-state solution would inevitably fail, as Netanyahu would be forced to follow through on his promise to apply Israeli law to all Jewish settlements on the West-Bank, which would include Palestinian territories. Escalating tensions between the Israeli government and Palestinians could lead to a repeat of the 2014 Gaza War, which resulted in over 2,200 Palestinian and 70 Israeli deaths, and caused an influx of refugees to UN shelters. Another conflict like this one would result in even more deaths on both sides, as well as international help in rebuilding the affected areas. Furthermore, it would result in irreversible damage to any potential peace talks, having a lasting impact on the country. As Israel’s safety and security has consistently been a primary concern for American Jews, a deadly conflict would oppose their hopes for the state.
It is important to address the misconception that due to Trump’s support of Netanyahu, there is a general majority American Jewish support for the Israeli politician. While the emergence of political movements such as Jexodus, which encourages Jews to leave the Democratic party, seem to portray increasing Jewish support for Trump, data shows that the majority American Jews do not approve of him, with 71% voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections and 79% voting for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. The decreasing American Jewish support for President Trump, despite his increased support for Israel and Netanyahu, shows that the possibility of stability and protection for Israel is not enough to garner Jewish Americans’ support for politicians with whom they disagree on an ideological level.
American Jews’ concerns over Netanyahu’s leadership are not baseless, as Israel’s increasing nationalism and extremism could have long-term implications for the country in the region and globally. Netanyahu’s coalition government is made up of smaller far-right parties such as The Jewish Home and United Torah Judaism, both of which are Jewish Orthodox, religious Zionist parties, meaning they will be working towards Jewish supremacy in the nation, further disrupting hopes of peace. This coalition implies that Netanyahu’s government will go beyond Israel’s border, which, in turn, will decrease American Jewish support for Trump and Netanyahu. Trump’s polarizing effect in the United States will perhaps lead some Israelis to view American Jews as collaborators to the “anti-Israel” Democratic party. President Trump already fans these flames by claiming that the Democratic party is anti-Israel, especially through his recent tweets advertising the ‘Jexodus’ movement. This tension between American Jews and some Israeli Jews will damage the longstanding legacy of American Jews supporting Israel.
The best case scenario at the moment for peace within Israel and the halting of the future radicalism of the new government seems to be the success of President Trump’s Mideast Peace Plan, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, which would give Palestinians economic opportunities in a long-term agreement with Israel. Unfortunately, this plan has yet to be unveiled, so it is not possible to truly reflect on how it would affect the Israeli government and their actions. The best way to diffuse the current tension would be for Netanyahu to abandon his efforts to create a more nationalist and religious Israel, insteading focusing on unification and peace. Given the centrality of that ultra-nationalism to his recent reelection, however, a more moderate Israel appears increasingly unlikely.