Yair Lapid may be the most Americanized politician in Israel. Well, the second most Americanized after Benjamin Netanyahu. Earlier this week, Lapid, well-coiffed with his perfectly fitted dark suit and with the obligatory self-deprecating joke as an opener (“honey, you’re not even the most influential Jew in this house,” his wife commented when a survey placed him at the top of the list) took the stage at Washington’s Brookings Institution. To a room filled with Middle East experts, scholars and pro-Israel advocates, Lapid delivered, in fluent English, a thought-through worldview which, to a great extent, could define the Israeli mainstream: a need to reach an agreement with the Palestinian while not putting forward any real concessions, a forceful call to renew bipartisan support for Israel in America and measured criticism of Israel’s alienation of Reform and Conservative Jews in America.
The audience was engaged. Lapid was at his best. His case, which came across loud and clear, was, to paraphrase, “there is an alternative to Netanyahu, and the alternative is me.” Poll numbers in Israel give some credence to his claim. A recent survey found that Lapid’s party, named Yesh Atid, Hebrew for “there is a future,” came in second after Netanyahu’s Likud. Last month, Lapid was polling stronger than Netanyahu. Either way at the next election, it will be Netanyahu (assuming legal troubles don’t catch up with him) versus Lapid.
But how many Jewish Americans outside the Washington bubble and the Jewish organizational sphere are aware of this fact? And, for that matter, how many would recognize Avi Gabbay, the new leader of the Labor Party? And who could point out Netanyahu’s potential successors already lining up for a possible Likud succession?
Jewish Americans’ awareness of Israeli political intricacies is superficial and largely outdated. Just as is Israeli knowledge of the ins and outs of American politics (just explain the electoral college to a non-American and you’ll see why no one gets American politics). But at least in the past, it used to matter. Israeli political parties had their U.S. support base, and American Jews took sides in the Israeli political process. David Ben-Gurion spent much of his early years in New York where he not only met his wife, but also established ties with the Jewish community that lasted as he moved on to become Israel’s first prime minister. Golda Meir, who grew up in Milwaukee, had her natural support circle in the American Jewish community, and even Menachem Begin maintained ties with American friends and supporters during his lengthy years as opposition leader, until taking power in 1977. Then came Netanyahu, whose manners, message and accent enchanted Americans, making him seem like one of theirs, or at least as close as an Israeli can be. These politicians offered American Jewish supporters a figure they could identify with, and a window into Jerusalem politics.
But now, with politics in the Holy Land fragmented more than ever and with Netanyahu’s decade-long dominance of Israel’s political system, the ties between Israeli politicians and American Jews are less significant. For both sides.
Jews in the U.S. rightly find it difficult to follow the daily parliamentary dramas in Israel and the ad-hoc alliances formed and then broken, only to reemerge in the next elections. Many American watchers still cling to the old two-party fault-line of Israeli politics: Likud vs. Labor, right vs. left, pro-two-state solution vs. those who oppose any compromise with the Palestinians. But as Lapid’s ascendance proves, these are hardly the lines that shape current Israeli politics. The Labor and centrist parties have all but given up on challenging Netanyahu’s policy regarding the Palestinian issue, and voters seem to care more about corruption scandals, housing prices and global threats than about the looming conflict next door.
And as American Jews lose interest, so do Israeli politicians. For them, there is little to gain from cozying up to diaspora Jews. Israeli election laws restrict overseas donations and limit financing from outside the country to primary elections (Yesh Atid, for example, doesn’t hold primaries and neither do most of the Orthodox parties.) The only one to find a successful model of overseas funding has been Netanyahu, who enjoys the massive investment of his American backer Sheldon Adelson in a pro-Likud daily newspaper published in Israel. In addition, Israeli political figures from the center find it hard to bridge the gap between their interests and those of American Jews, which focus on religious pluralism in Israel. Politicians on the right focus their efforts on Christian-evangelicals and on Orthodox communities, which agree with their message and provide a fundraising platform for pro-settlement activity. So, just in case there are members of the community out there who wish to know more about internal Israeli politics, here are a few pointers that may prove useful:
• Yair Lapid, while his ideology is hard to pinpoint, has managed to capture the Israeli political center and is currently the biggest threat to Netanyahu.
• But it all comes down to coalitions. Even a successful Lapid race won’t be enough if the Likud forms a bloc with parties to its right, as it has done after the last elections.
• The Labor Party is in tatters. The party of Ben-Gurion, Meir and Rabin is engaged in internal fighting, as its voters flee to the left and to the center.
• If Bibi steps down (or is forced out by legal process) the Likud will break into an all-out war with no clear front-runner to succeed Netanyahu. Nationalists partners from the right, including Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, hope the fallout will drive Likud voters to their side.
• The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the defining issue in Israeli politics.
• Issues concerning American Jews are of little interest to Israeli politicians. Very few are willing to fight for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall or for Reform conversions. Some in the center will pay lip service to these issues, but don’t expect them to lose sleep over them.
But despite this apparent disengagement of Americans Jews from Israeli politics, the past week has also provided a glimpse into how and where diaspora Jews can have their say: Isaac Herzog, Israel’s opposition leader, was recently elected to head the Jewish Agency in a move that was seen as a clear rebuke to Netanyahu who was pushing for a candidate from his own Likud party. How did this upset come about? By disgruntled American Jews who felt fed up with Netanyahu ignoring their concerns and who decided to use their political power to make a change. And that may hold a lesson to the future: Diaspora Jewry’s power to shape Israeli politics won’t come through writing checks to politicians. Focusing on specific niches in which American Jews matter can, however, move the needle.