Opinion |

Netanyahu? Gantz? Who Would American Jews Vote for in Israel’s Elections?

Despite what Trump may think, U.S. Jews can't vote in Israel's elections. But if they could, the political chasm between them and most Israelis - from peace to pluralism to Jewish nationalism - would be laid bare for all to see

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to journalists in Jerusalem on February 3, 2019; former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to journalists in Jerusalem on February 3, 2019; former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019Credit: AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics are right to argue that the cheers he always gets at AIPAC conferences shouldn’t mislead us. If American Jews could vote in Israel’s election, most of them wouldn’t think of casting a ballot for the Likud or its allies.

Netanyahu has his fans on the American Jewish right as well as within the Orthodox community. But there is no question that among the overwhelming majority of those U.S. Jews who identify as liberals, as well as with those who are affiliated with the non-Orthodox denominations or consider themselves unaffiliated (what the Pew Research Center called in their landmark study of Jewish Americans, "Jews of no religion"), the prime minister and the right wing and religious parties that back him have precious little support.

Like every Likud leader since Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, Netanyahu has always been considered out of touch with the liberal sensibilities of the majority of Democrat-voting American Jews. The unabashed Jewish nationalism of Begin and his successors has never gone down well among Americans who conform to writer Cynthia Ozick’s quip that "universalism is the parochialism of the Jews."

The jokes about Netanyahu winning a Republican presidential primary are an exaggeration. But he is genuinely popular among the conservatives and evangelicals who are now the true foundation of support for Israel in the United States. It is they who account for the stratospheric levels of backing for the Jewish state in the GOP, while Democrats remain split in their sympathies.

Israel’s national camp has always struck most of their American cousins as the home for the sort of Jews who make them feel embarrassed about the connection. Living in a country in which sectarian divisions are viewed as tantamount to racism, strident expressions of Jewish nationalism strike most Americans as in conflict with the liberal Jewish values, emphasizing social justice, they were raised to believe was the essence of Judaism.

A Netanyahu supporter wearing a Donald Trump mask with a sign reading in Hebrew "guardian of Israel" and a portrait of Netanyahu. Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem. April 7, 2019Credit: AFP

Just as important, Netanyahu’s openly antagonistic relationship with President Barack Obama and his close friendship with President Donald Trump puts him at odds with American Jews, who loyally supported the former and despise the latter - exactly the opposite of Israeli opinion about the two American leaders.

There’s also little approval among the liberal majority for the Likud’s positions on the two Israeli issues that most Americans have some understanding of: peace and pluralism.

While the Israeli electorate has shifted drastically to the right since the collapse of faith in the Oslo process during the Second Intifada, the majority of American Jews remain stubbornly indifferent to the sea change in opinion that has devastated Israel’s Labor Party and the left in general. From an Israeli perspective, American Jews are still stuck in the post-Oslo peace euphoria that is now seen as an unrealistic fantasy.

As last summer's American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews showed, 59 percent back a two state solution. The same total supported the dismantling of West Bank settlements.

By contrast, the AJC survey of Israelis discovered that nearly a majority of Israelis are now opposed to a two-state solution, with 54 percent opposing dismantling any West Bank settlements. A more recent Haaretz poll reported that 42 percent of Israelis actually favor annexation of the West Bank in one form or another.

If you were to translate all these numbers into support for Israeli political parties, that would mean that Americans would give an absolute Knesset majority to Labor and Meretz, the sort of dominance by the Zionist left that hasn’t existed for decades.

People march along Fifth Ave. during the Celebrate Israel Parade, Sunday, May 31, 2015, in New YorkCredit: אי־פי

The main challenger to the Likud - Benny Gantz and the Kachol Lavan Party - has straddled the fence on peace with the Palestinians, befitting a party whose Knesset candidates come from both the left and the right. But it also places him to the right of the stand embraced by most American Jews, even if most of them would applaud any alternative to the incumbent.

Gantz scored with Americans with his seeming embrace of religious pluralism in his speech to the AIPAC conference. But those who follow Israeli politics closely know that as soon as he returned home, Gantz stated his willingness to do business with the Haredi political parties he’ll need to form a government. Gantz is no more likely to make good on his promises about pluralism than Netanyahu has ever been.

As such, it’s possible to imagine that American Jews would, if they could, elect the sort of left-wing government that Israelis are clearly rejecting. That might make Jeremy Ben Ami, the head of the left wing lobby J Street, the theoretical American Jewish prime minister, while relegating someone like Mort Klein of the right wing Zionist Organization of America to the marginal position that is occupied in Israel by Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg (whose positions line up with those of J Street), even though his views are probably in accord with the parties that - polls say - will win a majority of the Knesset.

Israel's opposition: Benny Gantz (Kachol Lavan); Avi Gabbay (Labor); Yair Lapid (Kachol Lavan); Moshe Yaalon (Kachol Lavan); Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)Credit: AFP

But the problem with playing that game is that it ignores a broader truth about American Jewish attitudes, alongside which the activities of those two ideologues or even more centrist Jewish groups fade into irrelevance.

Far from being loyal liberal Zionists, demographic surveys tell us that the fastest growing segment of American Jewry - those Jews of "no religion" - have little or no connection with Israel at all.

Netanyahu’s unpopularity in the United States is blamed for American Jewish distaste for Israel. But the truth is that demographic issues involving rising rates of assimilation and intermarriage are far more important in creating disinterest in, as well as disaffection from, Israel than anything the prime minister does.

Most Jews still remain somewhat supportive of Israel, with conservatives and the Orthodox still deeply committed. But the time is long since passed when the Jewish state’s security and the memory of the Holocaust are the primary or even a major concern for most Americans with Jewish ties. J Street is losing ground on the left to the anti-Zionists of Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.

That means not only will most American Jews oppose any likely result of the Israeli election, but a growing number won’t care whom Israelis elect, or have the slightest understanding of why they did it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin

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