Victories and Tensions in U.S. and Israeli Elections

Jewish politics and power

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1. A big win for Jewish American liberals, defeat for their fellow Israelis

Only a week separated Israel’s general elections and the U.S. midterms, but they seemed a world apart. When results came in from Israel’s November 1 elections, Israeli liberals shook their heads in disbelief, trying to grasp their resounding defeat and to grapple with the notion that their country will be led by a coalition of right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Quite the contrast to the reaction of their fellow liberals in the United States who had braced for the worst but woke up to a new dawn of electoral achievements that staved off the feared “red wave” and marked a surprising rejection of extremist candidates.

The majority of Jewish Americans, as always, stood with Democrats in the midterms. According to a Jewish voter survey commissioned by J Street and conducted by polling firm GBAO, three out of four Jewish voters supported Democratic candidates (an exit poll by Fox News put Jewish support for Dems at 65 percent). More important, Jewish voters prioritized the two issues that Democrats hoped would most motivate voters: abortion rights and threats to American democracy.

Despite being on the same side of the political map, there are big differences between liberals in the United States and in Israel. While America’s left is focused, at least in recent election cycles, on domestic and human rights issues, the Israeli left has defined itself as defender of the two-state solution for the nation’s conflict with the Palestinians. Yet, as the outcome of the recent elections has demonstrated, Israel is now also struggling with the same issues that have been on the ballot in recent years for Americans: LGBT rights, especially those relating to transgender rights; religious freedom and separation of church and state; and the future of each nation’s democratic institutions.

Jews on both sides of the Atlantic will now face the consequences of their respective democratic processes and the impact of these choices on the Israel-U.S. relationship.

2. Prepare for tension: the Bibi-Biden edition

The two leaders have known each other for decades, and their relationship has had its ups and downs. Now, with President Joe Biden emboldened by his party’s midterm success and with Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu putting together the most extreme right-wing governing coalition in Israeli history, the two senior statesmen are preparing for another round.

It will not necessarily mean a return to the Obama-Netanyahu era collision course.

The battle over the nuclear deal with Iran, which shaped Netanyahu’s relations with Obama, is all but settled. Chances of the United States reaching an agreement on rejoining the deal seem slim, and even if a path to reentering opens, Netanyahu is now more aware of his limits and is not likely to try again to stir up Congress against a sitting president.

Even the Palestinian issue is less of a sticking point. While Obama engaged in active peacemaking attempts, Biden has openly stated his very limited goal of “keeping the two-state solution alive” without putting forward a peace plan or trying to advance a long-term agreement.

But tensions are in the air and will manifest themselves in coming months and years. Instead of grand disputes over future nuclear deals or peace agreements, expect a return to the era of critical comments voiced from the podium at State Department press briefings and pointed expressions of displeasure from American officials about Israeli policies. 

After congratulating Israel for its fair and democratic elections, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price noted, in a clear reference to Netanyahu’s intention to add far-right nationalist and homophobic members to his coalition, that the United States hopes “that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.” Days later, after Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s future coalition partner, attended a memorial service for Rabbi Meir Kahane—who was the founder and leader of a racist party that advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel—the State Department weighed in again: “There is no other word for it—it is abhorrent,” Price said. 

These tense moments are what the future will look like for Netanyahu and Biden: An effective working relationship between the two leaders and at the top levels, alongside a parallel track in which the United States calls out Israel for its policies and the views of its top position holders.

3. Prepare for tension: The American-Jewish edition

Some facts are obvious: Most U.S. Jews uphold liberal values; the new Israeli government—less so. The American Jewish community cares about advancing peace with the Palestinians; Netanyahu’s new coalition would rather see a permanent Israeli presence in the West Bank. Jewish Americans are largely affiliated with liberal Jewish denominations; the new Israeli coalition will include members who believe non-Orthodox Jews should not be considered Jewish.

And this last point may invite the most trouble.

On Sunday, Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit faction, put forward a new demand for Netanyahu: Revoke recognition of all conversions to Judaism conducted by Reform rabbis. The immediate ramification of such a move would be denying any Jew who went through Reform conversion from making aliyah to Israel based on the Law of Return.

Joining the call was Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef—a civil servant whose salary is paid by taxpayers—who called on the new Knesset to legislate laws that would declare Israel an “Orthodox state” and to override Supreme Court rulings providing equal rights to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.

These may be trial balloons floated by extremists in Netanyahu’s coalition to test the limits of the future government and to signal their long-term goals. Still, this is a huge source of concern for American Jews. Once these issues have been placed on the table, the tension between members of the U.S. Jewish community and Israel’s ruling coalition is no longer just an issue of competing values; it becomes personal.

4. Antisemites get the boot

U.S. Democrats, to be clear, are celebrating first and foremost their success in preserving a tight majority in the Senate, their ability to put up a good fight in the House, and their delivery of a dose of all-too-needed good news to Joe Biden, who even now has negative approval ratings.

There’s another reason for them to celebrate, and this one may get cheers from Republicans, too: The November 8 midterms delivered a blow to extremists of all kinds. This includes candidates associated with antisemitism—from Doug Mastriano, who was handily defeated by Josh Shapiro in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, to Lauren Boebert, who unexpectedly might lose her Colorado House seat. 

Others prevailed and might still be in positions of power when the final vote count is completed, but they too have had their wings clipped. 

Extremism isn’t gone from our political system, nor is antisemitism, but at least now it seems clear that being an extremist is really bad politics.

5. Limits on AIPAC’s power?

The decision of AIPAC to get involved in campaign financing came at a price. Mainstream Democrats took issue with AIPAC’s lists of endorsees, which included dozens of Republucan election deniers, while progressives within the party called for war against AIPAC after the pro-Israel lobby poured millions to defeat progressive Dems who were critical of Israel. 

The final round took place on election night, where AIPAC bet against progressive Democrat Summer Lee, who ran in Pennsylvania’s 12th district. The $1 million put up by AIPAC’s campaign-funding associate organization didn’t  prevent Lee from winning the seat and becoming the first African-American woman to represent Pennsylvania in the House. 

A failure?

Yes, if you look at this one race. Clearly money, even a lot of money, can’t always ensure a victory for your side.

But looking at the longer term, AIPAC has not failed.

It survived this tough election cycle, took a few hits to its public image and lost a few races, but all in all, the pro-Israel lobby proved it can get involved in the messy game of campaign finance and prevail. Democrats did not leave its board in droves, and donations, according to insiders, have not declined. 

AIPAC can live with Summer Lee in Congress, but all other critics of Israel running for office in the future have been put on notice: Your life will be all the more difficult if you stick to this view.

Opening Image: David Denberg via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) / World Economic Forum via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) / The White House via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0 US) / Governor Tom Wolf via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

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