Will the tail wag the dog in Bibi’s government?

Will the tail wag the dog in Bibi’s government?

Benjamin Netanyahu looks happy the morning after the Israeli general elections, Nov. 2, 2022. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu looks happy the morning after the Israeli general elections, Nov. 2, 2022. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the Israeli and our own midterm elections behind us, it became apparent how differently American Jews and Israelis vote. Depending on what poll you read, American Jews voted between two-thirds to 75% for Democrats, and more than 60% of Israelis identify with right-
leaning parties.

But this year the disparity in political sensibilities were widened with the rise of the Religious Zionist coalition led by the ultranationalists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. Although their rhetoric has moderated in their pursuit of ministerial positions in the Netanyahu government, we should be concerned about their calls for changing the Law of Return, annexation, eroding the power of the judiciary, and giving a freer hand to the police in quelling riots.

Their coalition is now the third largest party and is leveraging as much pull as possible to secure its share of power. Nevertheless, only 11% of Israelis voted for it, in contrast to the 41% French citizens who voted for the ultranationalist Marine Pen in the last French election.

The rise of the Religious Zionists can be attributed to concerns about security after the recent riots by Israeli Arabs, the spate of terrorist killings of more than two dozen people in recent months, and the collapse of the more moderate Yamina party, formerly led by Naftali Bennet.

While there should be concern about how much influence the Religious Zionists will have on the new government, some of the reaction from the United States has been near hysterical. It is led by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who declared that the Israel he knew was gone; he questioned whether people would question their support of Israel. This came even before the new government was formed and its guiding platform was finalized. Well, the America I know is also gone. The days when President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill forged compromises leading to reforms in immigration and Social Security are replaced with the vitriol spewed daily by partisans on both sides, with election deniers running for statewide office throughout the land. Should we ask if we should still support America?

Similarly, on the pages of the Jewish Standard, an author equated any potential Israeli annexation with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Donbas region. Israel conquered this territory as a result of Jordanian attacks, while Russia’s annexation was as a result of its brutal invasion, killing tens of thousands. You may disagree on the disposition of the territories, but the facts speak loudly about how Israel acquired it.

Netanyahu has said all the right things after his election. “The elections are over and, as the dust of discord between the political camps settles, we must come out of the trenches and work together,” he declared.

This is the right message, similar to President Biden’s on his inauguration. But will he deliver?

Seizing and retaining power has been Bibi’s mantra throughout his career. This zeal for control led to his reneging on the compromise on the Kotel fostered by Natan Sharansky to appease the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition. He also backed out of his promise to rotate the premiership with Benny Ganz. This sense of anyone but Bibi led to the last shaky government, consisting of the far right and left and an Islamist party, that lasted barely a year.

But there’s another side to Bibi. He’s a true secular conservative, who governs cautiously and has been on the left flank of Likud, reining in radical calls from his right. As Michal Koplow wrote: “As prime minister, he avoided major wars, pursued Gaza ceasefires and backroom deals to keep Hamas sated and the territory quiet, did not annex West Bank territory or retroactively legalize illegal outposts despite a clamor in his party and coalition to do both.” As finance minister, he unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit by lifting the heavy shackles of an overbearing state-run economy in the 1990s.

There are some critical issues that will arise where Bibi must protect the guardrails.

The Law of Return, the first legislation passed by the first Knesset, must be protected. This is the most tangible reminder that the State of Israel is there for the Diaspora. Israel must respect the religious identification of most Jews living outside Israel. As it celebrates its 75th birthday, Israel must remember the dangerous disunity  sown when there was an attempt to change the Law of Return during its jubilee year.

As Israel seeks to enlarge the Abraham Accords beyond its four Arab members, annexation must be off the table. Netanyahu, in probably his last term of office, seeks an enduring legacy. Bringing Saudi Arabia into the Accords would mark perhaps the greatest diplomatic coup of any prime minister. This quest hopefully will help him to protect this guardrail.

As Iran races for a nuclear bomb and tests its missiles’ efficacy on the Ukrainian civilian population, Israel and the United States must be on the same page on confronting this existential threat for Israel. And American Jewry, as a member of K’lal Yisrael, also is a strategic asset for Israel. We must ensure good communication and avoid surprises that will upset the equilibrium of the U.S./Israeli partnership and of Israel’s relationship with American Jewry.

The months ahead will help determine whether the tail of the Religious Zionists will wag the Netanyahu government. Or will Bibi have his sights on his legacy and lead despite the slings and arrows he may encounter along the way?

Let’s hope it’s the latter.

Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.

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