With Israeli elections just days away, many American Jews are watching closely, hoping that Benjamin Netanyahu will finally be defeated.
American Jews, overwhelmingly Democrats and liberals, have a litany of complaints about Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. They believe he insulted President Barack Obama by trying to prevent the passage of his Iran nuclear deal with an address to a joint session of Congress. They claim Netanyahu’s 2018 law declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people has eroded the country’s democracy. Above all, they blame Netanyahu for the lack of progress on the Palestinian front.
There is a reasonable chance that Netanyahu will win. If he does not, though, the victor will most certainly come from Israel’s political center. And if that happens, American Jews are in for a rude awakening. Because Israeli policies, which they have long criticized, are unlikely to change.
‘To Israeli ears, when American Jews say, “End the occupation,” it sounds like “Abolish taxes…” it’s a great idea but entirely unrealistic’
For all his talk, Netanyahu has been very conflict-avoidant. Israel has engaged in almost no wars during his long tenure. Some of the candidates opposing him have declared that they would hammer Gaza if Hamas continues shelling Israel (something Netanyahu has avoided for the past five years), and they would be equally resolute in preventing the Iranians from obtaining a weapon of mass destruction. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief rival, might not have pushed for the “Nation-State Law” (Bibi used it as a cheap political stunt to win votes), but there is no doubt that Gantz (like most Israelis) agrees with the thrust of the law.
The United States and Israel are very different projects. America’s Declaration of Independence begins “When in the course of human events,” while Israel’s begins “The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.” America was created to be a haven to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as Emma Lazarus’ poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty declares, while Israel was intended to be, as the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 notes, “a national home for the Jewish people.”
When we expect Israel to behave as America should, Israel often seems to fall short. And that, more than any of Israel’s actual policies, has long been the root cause of the fraught relationship between American Jews and the Jewish State.
“End the occupation,” American Jews chant. But Israelis are also exhausted by the occupation — they just have no idea how to end it without the West Bank becoming a breeding ground for terrorists, as happened with Gaza once Israel pulled out in 2005. That’s a risk Israelis are not willing to take.
To Israeli ears, when American Jews say, “End the occupation,” it sounds like “Abolish taxes.” It’s a great idea but entirely unrealistic.
American Jews look at Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians as a civil-rights issue. Israelis see it as a survival issue.
A country’s foremost obligation is the protection of its citizens, and any government Israelis elect will understand that. Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is unlikely to change until the Palestinians declare that they have ended their drive to destroy Israel. That will not happen anytime soon, however, and that is why, should Netanyahu lose, progressive American Jews are in for a grave disappointment.
To be sure, there is much that Israel must do differently in its relationship with American Jews. A healthy relationship between American Jews and Israel is critical for both sides, and both need to alter their rhetoric to rebuild their partnership.
Most important, though, is for American Jews, and Americans at large, to understand that despite all their similarities, America and Israel are radically different endeavors. One was meant to embrace all of humanity, while the other was intended to save the Jewish people. All of the candidates vying to become prime minister understand that. Protecting the state that has revived the Jewish people will always remain, by far, their topmost priority.
Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel” (Ecco/HarperCollins) is out Tuesday.
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