Five things you need to know about tomorrow’s Israeli election


1. It’s too close to call

With Israelis headed to the polls tomorrow, the race remains tight. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is trailing Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union by a few percentage points and is expected to come in second. Five of six polls released Friday gave Zionist Union a four seat lead, commanding 24 to 26 seats in the next Knesset compared to Likud’s 20 to 22 seats. A sixth poll, from the Israeli news site Walla, showed Zionist Union with a two-seat margin over Likud, 25 to 23.

Netanyahu, who sailed to a comfortable victory in the last election, in 2013, has been hit hard on Israel’s high cost of living, a festering housing crisis and his handling of relations with the United States and the Iranian nuclear threat. Herzog has built his campaign on those attacks, but a perceived dearth of charisma has kept him from widening his lead in the polls.

More importantly, neither Likud nor Zionist Union are slated to get more than a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 seats. To become prime minister, someone will have to cobble together a majority coalition. Which is why …

2. Tuesday’s winner might not be the party with the most votes

This isn’t a two-way race. It’s an 11-way race. And the winner isn’t the party with the most votes, but the one that can unite several smaller parties together into a governing coalition. In 2009, Netanyahu became prime minister even though Likud came in second on Election Day.

Eleven parties are expected to get the minimum 3.25 percent of votes needed to enter the Knesset. They range from the Arab-Israeli Joint List to the staunchly leftist Meretz to the Sephardic haredi Shas to the pro-settler Jewish Home. About half are right-wing or religious, and have historically caucused with Likud. The other half are left-wing, centrist or Arab-Israeli.

3. There’s usually a surprise on election night

Polls have been pretty stable for the past couple of months, but that doesn’t mean we know how the vote will come out tomorrow. Up to one quarter of voters, according to some surveys, are undecided. And in the past few elections, many of those voters have swung to a party that ends up doing much better than predicted.

In 2013, that party was Yesh Atid, which polled at 12 or 13 seats ahead of the election and won 19. In 2009, it was the centrist Kadima, which won 28 after polling at 23, coming in first place (but then sitting in the opposition). In 2006, it was the little-known Pensioners’ Party, which ran away with seven seats that mostly came from protest votes. If voters do deliver a surprise, it could catapult an unexpected party to newfound prominence and complicate the coalition math for both Herzog and Netanyahu.

4. Expect the Arab-Israeli party, the Joint List, to make a splash

A law raising the vote threshold last year forced the four Arab parties — from the Islamist Ta’al to the Arab-Jewish communist Hadash — to unite into the Joint List. Unification turned the Joint List into a major political force that appears poised to galvanize Arab-Israelis — who usually have comparatively lower voter turnout than Israeli Jews — to go to the polls. The Joint List is polling in third place and might receive as many as 15 seats tomorrow.

The Joint List has vowed to sit in the opposition no matter what, but it could still influence who forms the next government by preventing the right-wing from garnering a 61-seat majority. That scenario could lead Zionist Union and Likud to create a unity government, which would make the Joint List the biggest opposition party.

5. We’ll know who won the election only a few weeks from now

Unlike U.S. elections, in which a clear candidate (usually) emerges victorious, Tuesday is just one phase of a drawn-out process in Israel. After the votes come in, parties will unite behind their preferred prime minister no matter who came in first. Israel’s president will then select the party leader with the largest supporting bloc to form a government.

The chosen leader gets up to two months to form a majority coalition, an often unpredictable process in which deals are cut and ministries and other influential posts doled out. In 2013, elections in late Januaryyielded a coalition only in mid-March, even though Netanyahu won by a wide margin. Pundits are predicting a Netanyahu reelection because the right-wing bloc may again win a majority — even if Likud itself comes in second. But with a couple parties staying mum on which candidate they support, it’s impossible to know how the race is going to play out.

Obama’s planned visit to Israel


As you’ve probably heard, President Obama will visit Israel next month, his first time as president. And for those people still upset with him for not visiting during his first term, here’s the good news: Obama’s visit is still much earlier in his second term than when George W. Bush visited. So there’s no reason to be upset — not about the timing of the visit. As for the reasons and the implications of this impending visit — this is no big surprise — here’s one list of things to be considered:


Political Editor Shmuel Rosner, in Tel Aviv, discusses President Obama's Israel visit timing with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, in Los Angeles. Story continues after the video.


Iran

Remember Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.N. speech last September? Remember his “red line”? Summer is coming fast, and a presidential visit in early spring is one good way of attempting to give the United States and its allies more legroom to  maneuver. Obama wants to do more talking with Iran and needs Israel not to be too fidgety with its timetables. His presence is a way of reassuring Israelis that the United States is on their side and that they should not rush to action. Since the public isn’t eager to see action — Obama has a chance of succeeding with it. As for the prime minister, that’s another story. Netanyahu truly believes that he was planted in his office to do this one, big thing of saving Israel from the peril of a nuclear Iran. If there’s one issue on which Netanyahu might decide to spite public opinion — Iran would be it.

Peace

One hopes that Obama got some assurances from both Israelis and Palestinians that his visit will not go to waste. The time for renewal of the peace process — that is, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — is long overdue. If Obama can’t make it happen, his visit could be in danger of being labeled a failure. (On the other hand, expecting him to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to get the two sides much closer to resolving it would also be a huge mistake — he can’t do it).

Coalition Talks

Don’t underestimate the timing of the announcement. Potential coalition members now have a clearer choice: If they want to see Obama, they’d better hurry. If they want to keep claiming that Netanyahu is ruining Israel’s relations with the United States — their case just became less convincing.

Israeli Compromises

Obama’s visit would make Netanyahu seem stronger, at least for a while (until the visit, and possibly after it if the visit is successful). Obama is experienced enough to understand this and surely made Netanyahu pay some price for it. Where can Israel compromise? Iran is tough, but with his new coalition Netanyahu has more flexibility on the Palestinian front (he doesn’t yet have a coalition — but his potential coalitions give him this flexibility).

Syrian Tensions

As I argued last week, the situation in Syria is bringing the Israeli and the U.S. governments closer together. It will give Obama and Netanyahu one safer issue on which to agree.

Scheduling Complications

If Obama is going to Israel in late March, this means that the hope for him to come here for Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference is pretty much dead. It also makes the annual AIPAC conference in early March a little less consequential. Netanyahu will not travel to Washington if Obama is coming to Jerusalem (or so I’d assume); Obama might not want to go to AIPAC and upstage his own visit just two weeks before it happens. For the past week I’ve been thinking that the smartest move for the administration would be to send Chuck Hagel to the AIPAC conference — if he is confirmed as secretary of defense. This would make an interesting speech, and would present AIPAC attendees with an interesting test of restraint.

Israeli Opinion

Can Obama move the needle of suspicion downward with this visit? The American president is perceived by many Israelis as pro-Palestinian or neutral. I’m not sure whether Obama cares much about being popular among Israelis, but I’m sure that some advisers have told him that being more popular would also make him more effective as he battles with Netanyahu over policy. The question for me is this: Can Obama still charm Israelis — or maybe it’s too late for him to change an already firm Israeli suspicion of him? (My answer: He can probably change Israeli minds, but not by making speeches — they’d have to see action to be convinced).

Agenda

One would hope Obama is well aware that Israelis are too busy with conscripting the ultra-Orthodox at the moment to be concerned with issues such as regional peace and the occupation. Seriously: Much like the United States, Israel is preoccupied with domestic concerns. Assuming coalition talks are completed by the time Obama comes, the new government will be busy with drafting a budget and planning for cuts in government spending and raising taxes. Obama’s visit will be a distraction — not an event that’s going to top the agenda for very long.

It’s Time

Four years ago, I wrote an article for The New Republic in which, somewhat nastily, I advised Obama not to come to Israel:

“[W]ords alone will not make Israelis trust Obama. Israelis do not suffer from lack of understanding of the issues; they suffer from peace-fatigue. They look at “peace processes” with suspicion, based on experience and events. They are scarred enough to know what has [worked] and what has not, and they are tired of the good intentions of enthusiastic novices, believing that with their youth and their smarts they’ll be able to come up with some magic trick that can somehow round a square. What Obama needs is a convincing plan that makes sense. It does not look like he has one.”

Now I think it’s good time for him to come. Why?

• Because it is clearly not about domestic politics — elections are over in both countries.

• Because expectations have been lowered enough for all parties involved to understand that peace isn’t coming “within a year or two.” No one expects a “magic trick” anymore.

• Because Obama is no longer an “enthusiastic novice” — he is a second-term president.

• Because Netanyahu needs an opportunity to be a gracious host to Obama. And it will save Obama at least one Netanyahu visit to Washington, where he keeps getting on the president’s nerves.

• Because the Middle East is in turmoil and this really isn’t the right time for these two leaders to keep bickering about one another.

• Because Obama has to be here at least once, so why not get it over with.

One question though: Does he stay for the Seder?

Solidarity Makes for Strange Bedfellows


"Anybody who supports Israel will be my friend, even though they may be Christian fundamentalists." — Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air

As Israel enters the third year of the Al-Aksa Intifada, L.A. Jews are reaching out to pro-Israel Christians to express solidarity for Israel.

On Oct. 2, an estimated 1,500 Jews and Christians are expected to attend an evening "solidarity gathering" of The Israel-Christian Nexus, a Jewish community-supported outreach to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

"I never thought there would be a time when I’d see Christians and Jews hugging each other," said the Rev. George Otis of the Assembly of God in Simi Valley and a longtime Christian broadcaster in the Middle East. "That’s what motivates me — the opportunity to help people in real trouble."

Otis’ Kingworld Ministries is one of 21 Christian ministry sponsors of the Oct. 2 event, which will feature speeches plus music from a combined Jewish/Christian choir.

Long known as a bulwark of Israel’s religious tourism industry, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants have, in the past three years, become stalwart political allies supporting the besieged nation.

Though politics makes strange bedfellows, and there are those in the Jewish community opposed to the alliance with the Christian right, calling it shortsighted and exploitive, given that these groups ultimately believe that Jews will have to convert in the End of Days.

The last alliance between Jews and Christians in the 1960s was forged from common social goals, when Jews, Catholics and Protestants marched arm in arm during the civil rights movement. But today’s coalition starkly differs, because the very evangelical and fundamentalist Christians that pro-Israel Jews are reaching out to often have very different social values; this is particularly true with Reform Jews who are political opponents of the Christian right when it comes to social issues such as gay rights or affirmative action.

"Jewish coalitions in the United States are formed with other communities on specific issues," said Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple. "People that we work with on social issues are liberal Christians. The people that we work with on Israel issues are fundamentalist Christians. And in these times, when even American Jews don’t visit Israel as tourists, the fundamentalist Christians do, so more power to them."

The Israel-Christian Nexus is being coordinated by two Jewish groups — the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and retired Israel Gen. Shimon Erem’s Promoting Israel Publicity and Education Fund — which currently share a 2002 $50,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. That money is being used to reach out to Southern California’s large but largely unnoticed evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities, according to Lewis Groner, the foundation’s marketing and communications director.

The 28 Jewish sponsors of the gathering include all facets of local Jewish life including 10 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, The Jewish Federation, plus Persian, Russian, Democratic and Republican Jewish groups, the American Jewish Congress and UCLA’s Bruins for Israel. At Thursday’s event, the Rev. Jack Hayford will speak as will Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis such as Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, plus Ambassador Yuval Rotem of the Israel Consul-General in Los Angeles.

Beyond this gathering, the $50,000 grant for the "nexus" work supports a pro-Israel speakers bureau and educational materials about Israel for churches, schools and media. About 20 local, private evangelical and fundamentalist schools will have workshops on Zionist history and the Middle East conflict. The foundation this year also is funding the Holy Land Democracy project, brining awareness of Israel to Catholic high school students and speakers.

"We need to build coalitions where the opportunities present themselves," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

But to Steven Jacobs of Reform Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the danger of any gathering to create unabashed support for Israel stems partly from how Jews view their new Christian allies.

"There’s a patronizing attitude toward us as God’s children that they [Christians] stand up for us," he said.

To some conservative, pro-Israel Christians, Jacobs said, "Nothing that Israel does is wrong — they’re entitled to do anything they want. There’s a difference between an anti-Semite and a philo-Semite. A philo-Semite is one who loves Jews categorically, and that’s dangerous to me."

Erem, who also has met with Lutheran congregations in Minnesota and Michigan, spoke at pro-Israel evening rallies in Sacramento on Sept. 18-19, supported by Christians and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"We reached the conclusion that it has to be done on a broader base and it cannot rely on a once-in-a-blue-moon appearing in a church," said Erem, who lives in Beverly Hills. "I found out that once the meeting is on a one-to-one basis with pastors and priests, you break the ice and mobilize friendships."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "promised that when he comes again to Los Angeles, he’ll find the time to meet again with Christian pastors," Erem said.

Outreach also is occurring with some Mormons and Eastern Orthodox churches, but Erem said that because the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal continues to "occupy their attention, for the time I don’t think it would be beneficial to get in touch with them."

But are Jewish members of this alliance being shortsighted, as critics both here and in Israel have claimed? How do they justify the fact that evangelical and fundamentalist support for Israel is based on Christians’ deep hope that a Book of Revelations-predicted, end-of-times future will bring forth a Christianized Israel, with some Jews there, but mostly Christians witnessing the return of Jesus?

"I couldn’t care less what are the ulterior motives of the evangelical community," Erem said. "For the time being, they are a meaningful supporter for the State of Israel."

Many Christians downplay their eschatological plans. Otis, of Kingsworld Ministries, said Christian end-of-time views or even some Christian desires to convert non-Christians, including Jews, are not central to current support for Israel.

"It doesn’t have that as its bullseye — the conversion of Jews but rather the helping of Jews, and Israel, in this hour."

Fishel said he likes his new Christian allies because, "They’ve been very strong advocates on behalf of the State of Israel. They have a very strong sentiment for our Jewish State…. One does not necessarily have to agree with all of their ideological beliefs to work together."

And despite Jacobs’ wariness of Christians who gush over Israel, he has a natural, less politically driven relationship with Church on the Way in Van Nuys — an Israel-Christian Nexus event sponsor.

"We hold High Holiday services at Church on the Way," said Jacobs, who noted he has been traveling recently and was not alerted to the Oct. 2 event. "Had I been asked, I probably would have joined because of my respect for the people at the Church on the Way."

Erem said this will not be the first odd couple sitting together for Israel. He noted that in 1947, "I went to Czechoslovakia for arms. They had probably their own motives, why to provide the arms, but I couldn’t care less because it saved us, it absolutely saved us. We did not look what are the motives of those who supported us. We should not look at what are the motives of those who support us now."

Reality For Campus Ills


During the past year, if you were to mention the campus to anyone involved in Jewish life, you would surely elicit a response that was a mixture of anxiety, contempt and anger.

Headlines screamed with assertions that our universities were hotbeds of anti-Semitism and that Jewish students were front-line troops in a war to defend Israel. San Francisco State, Berkeley and Concordia — all of them scenes of belligerence, hateful expression and anti-Jewish violence — became code words denoting the rise of a vicious strain of worldwide anti-Semitic bigotry.

In fact, the events at these institutions appear to have revived the dormant anti-anti-Semitism industry and infused Jewish survivalists with new vitality and with a dose of ethnic pride. The message that these survivalists are disseminating is that we are a community in peril, that the college campus is an intimidating environment for young Jews and that the very survival of Israel is at stake.

But most campus professionals, who are certainly disturbed by the well-publicized anti-Jewish confrontations at a handful of particularly volatile universities, see little evidence of a widespread increase in anti-Semitism at their institutions. In fact, the most recent Anti-Defamation League survey (June 2002) supports this perception statistically with its finding that "anti-Semitism on college campuses is virtually non-existent" (3 percent of college undergraduates are in the most anti-Semitic category, as compared to 17 percent of the national population).

It turns out that contrary to the dominant dogma, "tolerance is more prevalent on college campuses than elsewhere in America."

However, the perception of Jewish students is that they are being victimized, and, notwithstanding the above analysis, their sense of siege requires strategic responses. So, what can be done to improve the atmosphere and buttress the position of Israel supporters on campus?

1. Sponsor speakers who offer healing messages of hope and coexistence, rather than contentious polemicists who project a future of hopelessness and endless confrontation. It is especially important that we maintain our focus on the ultimate goal — peace — and that we consistently affirm that the citizens of Israel are willing to accept a two-state compromise, but that there is no partner in our quest.

Furthermore, it is vital to admit our mistakes and engage in genuine self-criticism. Remember, it is our capacity to recognize our flaws that is one of the keys to our creative survival as a people. What’s more, if you are always right, you lose.

2. Build coalitions with moderate Arabs and Muslims. What is entirely missing from the agenda of the advocacy experts, who represent various communal agencies, is a program for nurturing campus coexistence. This is absolutely vital for the well-being of Jews, Arabs and Muslims, the entire campus community and for the social and political future of America.

My experience has taught me that the vast majority of Arab and Muslim students do not wish to pursue a path of discord and conflict and if approached in a sensitive manner, will agree to enter a dialogue. We simply have to learn how to break through the artificial wall of separation that prevails.

As a result of our efforts at UCLA, we successfully organized a course that was co-taught by myself and a Palestinian graduate student titled, "Voices of Peace: Perspectives on Confrontation and Reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli Conflict."

Just recently, we held the second annual Ramadan break-the-fast, co-sponsored by Hillel, the Progressive Jewish Student Alliance and the Muslim Student Association. One could argue that these activities have contributed to the relative calm at UCLA.

3. Raise funds to endow academic chairs, programs and graduate fellowships in Israel studies. By far, the most important long-term proposal that I can suggest is creating professorships in the field of Israel studies. This addresses an essential educational lacuna, or gap, at our universities that has been generated, to a large extent, by the chilling impact of Edward Said’s polemics on Middle East Studies programs.

There are few institutions that can boast of a Middle East scholar whose sympathies lie with Israel. Such scholarly appointments will not only engender academic balance, but will provide a permanent presence on campus of an instructor who will contribute to the public discourse regarding the conflict, who will function as a resource to colleagues and to students and who, as a regular member of the faculty, will touch the lives and influence the minds of countless number of students by introducing a positive educational approach to the subject.

This is a far more effective utilization of our scarce funds than the current rush by the survivalists to produce propaganda brochures of questionable utility. This is the priority.

Returning to the Ramadan program, what was most moving was that a Jewish participant stood before the crowd of 100 Muslim and Jewish students and faculty and read a poem advocating peace in Arabic, while a Muslim student read a prayer for peace in Hebrew.

When I told the Muslim representative that the prayer had been adapted by Abraham Joshua Heschel, he said, "That’s amazing! I read everything written by Heschel that I can find."

And I thought to myself: "Only on campus."


Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA and an instructor in sociology and Jewish studies at UCLA.

+