What European Jews Want From the New Israeli Government – and Will They Miss Netanyahu?

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s calls to improve relations with Diaspora Jews have been welcomed on the Continent, where the former prime minister divided opinion

Jotam Confino
Jotam Confino
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the first cabinet meeting of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the first cabinet meeting of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem on Sunday. Credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AP
Jotam Confino
Jotam Confino

Judging by recent statements from the new Israeli government, “restoring” Israel’s standing in the international community is a top priority. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke of the need to “deepen the dialogue between Israel and Europe,” while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett rushed to invite German Chancellor Angela Merkel for an official state visit to Israel before she retires later this year.

But both Bennett and Lapid are comparative newcomers on the international stage compared to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose close ties with world leaders has both been praised and criticized in various circles and divided many Diaspora Jews.

Merkel’s relationship with Netanyahu could best be described as lukewarm. But among other European leaders, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders are all admirers of the former Israeli premier.

So what do Europe’s Jewish communities expect from Netanyahu’s successor, and just how divisive was he? Haaretz spoke to members of the Jewish community in Hungary, German and Britain to find out more.

Hungary: More than Bibi-Orbán

Much has been said about Netanyahu’s close relationship with Orbán, the populist who is widely seen as one of Europe’s most controversial leaders. Netanyahu thanked Orbán for “standing up for Israel time and time again” in international forums, as well as his fight against antisemitism. Orbán, meanwhile, has said his country’s close ties with Israel are due to his “excellent personal relations” with Netanyahu.

András Heisler, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, says the relationship between the countries’ leaders is less relevant to him than Hungary’s solidarity with Israel in the international community.

“Our community has already had relations with Mr. Bennett, when he was Israel’s Diaspora affairs minister. If the Israeli citizens accepted him, then the Diaspora stands by him. I must emphasize that the relations between the State of Israel and the communities of the Diaspora must be tightened in the future. Bennett is aware of this, since he was in charge of that matter,” Heisler told Haaretz.

The federation president has previously said that the 50,000-strong Jewish community in Hungary (some estimates put it at almost double that) has an “incredibly positive” relationship with Orbán’s government, though Orbán’s rule is under threat in next year’s parliamentary election as his Fidesz party is currently running neck and neck with the United Opposition.

Hungary’s chief rabbi, Róbert Frölich, echoes Heisler’s remarks, saying that he hopes Orbán’s “zero tolerance toward antisemitism” is based on “principles and not personal relationships. As a community, we have no feelings toward Bennett or Lapid or Netanyahu. We have feelings for Israel as the holy land and as the homeland of our relatives living there,” he said. Not all Hungarian Jews agree that their premier exhibits zero tolerance toward antisemitism, however.

Frölich added that, like many other countries in Europe, Jews in Hungary “can feel the rise of antisemitism,” following last month’s latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Heisler says it’s the duty of Hungary’s Jewish community to continue standing in “solidarity with Israel” despite this.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting in Jerusalem two years ago. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Germany: Signs of hope

The issue of personal relationships in international politics triggers vigorous debate, and Netanyahu and Orbán belong to the school who see it as a cornerstone of any country’s foreign policy. That makes the reported bad blood between Netanyahu and Merkel something of an outlier since the relationship between Germany and Israel is as strong as ever, as seen by Germany’s unwavering support for Israel during the Gaza conflict.

Anna Staroselski is president of the Jewish Student Union in Germany, and she for one doesn’t think the Jewish community will miss Netanyahu. “The new Israeli government brought relief to a lot of people. Not only was Netanyahu sent into the opposition but a new government, which couldn’t be more diverse and pluralistic, was formed,” she said.

“There is great hope that the needs of the Diaspora will be more taken into account in the new government, as Jews around the world continue to be held accountable for the decisions of the Israeli government,” Staroselski added.

Germany’s Jewish population increased thanks to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union and now numbers some 120,000. It also saw a wave of antisemitic attacks during the recent Gaza conflict, but Staroselski said she hopes the new Israeli government adopts a different approach to such incidents than the previous one.

“Jews who live in the Diaspora recognize themselves as being part of the society they live in. But oftentimes they’re still seen as foreigners and as Israelis. It was not helpful when Netanyahu, while addressing global antisemitism, invited all Jews to come back to their homeland – the State of Israel,” she explained.

Staroselski said she was encouraged by Lapid’s recent promises on the Palestinian issue. “He announced that he would work more closely with the Palestinian Authority to promote a constructive dialogue to improve the living conditions of the Palestinians,” she said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meeting with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

British Diaspora back on the map

The Jewish community in Britain is the second largest in Europe (after France), and despite Netanyahu’s deep disagreements with the British government over its participation in the Iran nuclear deal, the relationship between the two countries was rock solid during his 12 years in power.

However, his decision last year to name Tzipi Hotovely as Israel’s ambassador to the U.K. was met with unexpected fury from Britain’s Jewish community, with many calling on the government to reject her.

Prior to Hotovely’s appointment, the Likud lawmaker had been widely criticized after controversial comments aimed at the U.K. Jewish community in 2019: She lashed out at the Board of Deputies of British Jews because it didn’t “consult” with Israel’s Foreign Ministry before publicly supporting a two-state solution.

The question now is whether a right-wing leader like Bennett is good news for British Jewry.

Tzipi Hotovely on her way to a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last year.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

“I don’t think many people in the community are tearing their clothes over Netanyahu ending his tenure,” Justin Cohen, news editor and co-publisher of the Jewish News, told Haaretz. “Even those who supported him at some point felt like it was dragging on too long, and that he was causing an impediment to the country moving on, after endless elections. At the same time, those on the center and left are fully aware that Bennett is even more right wing than Netanyahu. They therefore hope that someone like Lapid will help balance things out,” he added.

In Britain, too, Lapid’s comments about the need to restore ties with Diaspora wsa welcomed.

“Under Netanyahu, the British Diaspora clearly wasn’t a priority. If anything, it would be the American Jewry that would hear from him, or receive his visits when he was in the U.S. That wasn’t the case with British Jewry during his entire premiership. Lapid in particular has shown great interest in foreign affairs and Diaspora communities, also in the U.K., which is important,” Cohen said.

“I always get the feeling that Lapid is enthusiastic about engaging with British Jews on the ground, so he will certainly make a positive change,” he continued. “That, combined with the fact that we will see an Israeli president soon [former Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog] who puts Diaspora relations at the absolute center, and always has done – in particular with the U.K. – hopefully means we will see a greater engagement and interest towards British Jewry. Interviews with the British Jewish media would also be a significant change,” Cohen added.

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