Liberal Jews cheer as Netanyahu’s grip on power weakens

Liberal Jews cheer as Netanyahu’s grip on power weakens

WASHINGTON: As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battled for his political survival on Wednesday after a tight election that left him short of a Knesset majority, progressive activists and liberal American Jews were delighted in the possibility of an end to the era of “King Bibi.”

After 10 years of Netanyahu’s rule, which saw a dramatic deterioration in ties between Jerusalem and American liberals and saw a shift in support from the Democratic Party, many expressed hope that his time could finally be up.

“For many progressive American Jews, Benjamin Netanyahu has become synonymous with reactionary Israeli policies and objectionable political attitudes,” Ori Nir, Americans for Peace Now’s communications director, told The Times of Israel.

 “Having someone else at the helm, someone who represents a different set of values and a different style – even if temporarily, as a part of a rotation agreement – could rebuild among US Jews the sense of trust and affinity that has been cracked under Netanyahu in the past decade,” Nir said.

According to the latest ballot count yesterday, Netanyahu’s Likud party fell short of a Knesset majority.

With 95% of the votes counted, Blue and White party was projected to win 33 seats, keeping its slight edge over Likud at 32 seats.  The Likud-led bloc including Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina, would give Netanyahu 56 backers for the premiership, five seats shy of the 61 needed for a majority in the Knesset.

Netanyahu is now in his most vulnerable position in recent years and US President Donald Trump implicitly acknowledged it yesterday.

When asked if had spoken with the prime minister since the election, he told reporters: “I have not. Those results are coming in and it’s very close. Everybody knew it’s going to be very close. We’ll see what happens. Look, our relationship is with Israel. We’ll see what happens.”

A White House official declined to comment about whether the coalition outcome would delay the release of the administration’s peace plan.

Netanyahu made his close relationship with Trump a centre piece of his re-election campaign, erecting billboards across the country showing him with the US president and other foreign leaders. He often cast aspersions on his rivals’ ability to match his diplomatic achievements.

But Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump further distanced him from many US Jews who dislike the president despite his pro-Israel moves, like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, slashing aid to the Palestinians and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

Netanyahu also alienated Israel from the Democratic Party, from his acrimonious relationship with former president Barack Obama, including his speech before Congress lambasting his negotiations with Tehran, to his friendship with Trump and other far-right autocratic leaders.

Most recently, he outraged the Democrats by capitulating to Trump’s demands to ban two Democratic congresswomen from entering Israel.

A change of the guard, a veteran Jewish Democratic operative told The Times of Israel, would lessen the blow of that incident and help restore bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.

“Any outcome that gives Bibi less power is going to improve relations with Jerusalem and Democratic leaders in Congress,” said Aaron Keyak, a former chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“It’s no secret that Netanyahu has gone all-in on his alliance with President Trump and anything that moves away from that, or softens that reality, is not only going to improve relations between the Israelis and Democratic leadership, but also with Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community.”

Beyond diplomacy, Netanyahu has had a bitter relationship with liberal Jewry, especially after he reversed his decision to allow for a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall.

Debra Newman Kamin, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organisation of Conservative rabbis, said she was hoping he would not remain in office.

 “I personally would be quite happy with those results,” she told The Times of Israel. “I understand that many in the Israeli public view him as Mr. Security, but he has not been a friend to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. He’s done nothing to promote religious pluralism. As a matter of fact, he moved it backwards in playing coalition politics.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, for his part, has promised to honour the Western Wall agreement if he became prime minister. Along with his declared desire to restore bipartisan support, that would make him a leader more amenable to US Jews and liberal Americans.

“It’s not just about the personality, it’s about the policy,” Keyak said. “I have to believe that any power-sharing agreement or centre-left prime minister will lead to policies that are more in line with American Jewish values.

“I think some of the biggest pressure points with American Jewish community over Bibi’s premiership would likely have been lessened or altogether avoided under a leader like Benny Gantz.”

That includes who the premier chooses to place in sensitive diplomatic roles. “It starts at the top, but it also includes with the people they choose to represent their government,” Keyak said. “It’s not just one individual, it starts at the top-down.”

While the DC insider did not mention Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer by name, many Democrats have pointed to him as a source of the shift in Jerusalem’s stance in recent years.

A former Republican operative, Dermer brokered Netanyahu’s back-door speech to Congress and has been a vocal Trump defender.

Keyak also noted Netanyahu’s move away from endorsing a two-state solution in peace talks with the Palestinians and his moves to weaken Israel’s democratic institutions.

“I think he’s a bad brand outside of Israel,” she said. “If Bibi’s reign is over, I think that will be an opening for people to look at Israel in a different way.”

Times of Israel

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