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Netanyahu election tactics cause unease and anger for liberal Jews

By RON KAMPEAS WASHINGTON (JTA) – Two states, pluralism and civil rights could be said to sum up the Israel agenda for mainstream Jewish groups over the past two decades.


Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements on the eve of the prime minister’s victory in Israeli elections Tuesday suggests that the government that emerges from current coalition negotiations is unlikely to make progress on any of them.

His 11th-hour campaign tactics have raised significant questions among American Jewish leaders about his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and equal treatment of all Israelis. And the likeliest coalition government will include haredi Orthodox parties, whose rejection of non-Orthodox streams has been a cause of tension with U.S. Jews for decades.

Though Netanyahu has moved to contain the fallout from his vow that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch and his urging supporters to counter the “droves” of Arabs coming out to vote, for many liberal American Jews, the prime minister exacerbated a deep sense of unease with the direction that Israel is heading.

“I’ll be frank, it’s anger and it’s pain that we feel at having watched the prime minister of Israel use fear-mongering and scare tactics tinged with racism to claw his way to 23 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s election,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the liberal lobby J Street, in his address at the opening of the group’s conference here on Saturday night. “I know and I share the anger in this room at seeing the prime minister, in order to save his political life, confirm what so many people already knew — that he is utterly and completely opposed to Palestinian statehood. And then, to watch him shamelessly and cynically try to walk it back in a matter of 36 hours.”

The two largest religious streams in American Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements, both issued statements last week condemning Netanyahu’s Election Day appeal to Likud voters to head for the polls to counterbalance the votes of Arab-Israelis.

“Because we proudly and unreservedly continue our unflagging support for the State of Israel, its citizens and its values, we must condemn the prime minister’s statement, singling out Arab citizens for exercising their legitimate right to vote,” the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement Thursday. “It is incumbent upon Jews around the world to denounce the prime minister’s divisive and undemocratic statement and we do so here.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called the statement “disheartening” and a “naked appeal to his hard-right base’s fears rather than their hopes.”

Netanyahu moved quickly post-election to contain the damage. In interviews last week with MSNBC and National Public Radio, he insisted that he remains committed to a two-state solution but that circumstances do not allow for one because of Palestinian intransigence and ongoing turmoil across the region. He said his Election Day appeal was meant not to suppress Arab voters, who he claimed were being mobilized by a “foreign funded” get-out-the-vote operation, but only to inspire his own supporters.

Yet Netanyahu’s imagery, and his implication that some voters are to be feared, was unsettling to some in the American Jewish community fresh off commemorations marking the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in support of voting rights for African-Americans. Both the Reform and Conservative movements sent leaders to join in the commemorations earlier this month in Selma, Ala.

“I feel the same deep distress as all of you, as part of an American Jewish community rightfully proud of those among us who went to the South and took part in the Freedom Rides in the 1960s to fight for the right of all Americans to vote, and now ashamed that the prime minister of Israel would turn the notion of Arab citizens exercising their right to vote into a scare tactic to turn his supporters out at the polls,” Ben-Ami said in his address.

Also unsettling for U.S. Jewish groups was Netanyahu’s apparent equivocation over his commitment to two states, a key rhetorical point for mainstream pro-Israel groups that have long argued that Israel is more willing to sacrifice for peace than its Arab counterparts.

The day before the vote, Netanyahu told the NRG news website that “anyone who would today create a Palestinian state and evacuate territory would concede territory to extreme Islam to attack Israel.” Asked if it meant that as prime minister he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said, “Indeed.”

In a sign of how deeply invested many Jewish groups are in the two-state outcome, several of them embraced Netanyahu’s “clarification” that he still supports a two-state solution — just not right now.

“We welcome the prime minister’s clarification of his position on a two-state solution and a peace agreement with the Palestinians,” the Anti-Defamation League said. Similar statements were released by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Netanyahu seems determined to build a right-wing coalition, which means that the most strident advocates of two states will remain in the opposition. The first party he invited into government is Jewish Home, which rejects a Palestinian state. The Obama administration has signaled it will treat Netanyahu as having abandoned two states until he is able to prove otherwise.

Netanyahu’s outgoing government, in place since January 2013, was the first in decades to keep haredi parties in the opposition. Tensions had been higher between Israel and the U.S. Jewish leadership during Netanyahu’s previous term, from 2009 to 2013, due to concerns over treatment of women by haredi government officials and the non-recognition of non-Orthodox movements.

Unless Netanyahu attempts to forge a national unity government — something both he and the opposition Zionist Union have already counted out — he will need the 14 seats of two haredi parties to secure a safe majority. Those parties, in turn, will likely demand posts at ministries where they will be able to wield power in areas of civil law.

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