January 19, 2020

Vote Is a Fresh Start

People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

And the results are … confusing! Israel’s election day ended with no clear indication of who would be the country’s next prime minister and what the balance of power in the Knesset might look like.

Even if Benny Gantz’s victory declaration was premature — as of the Journal’s press time, we didn’t know the outcome — the impressive showing of his Blue and White Party signaled the arrival of a major centrist force in Israeli politics.

However the results play out, Netanyahu — who also declared victory — continued to enjoy support from about 30 percent of the electorate. So, “Mr. Security” survived again. He was threatened with indictment; he had three IDF chiefs of staff speak out against him; he had a submarine scandal that could have torpedoed him, but Bibi maintained his base — as did the right-wing bloc.

For an overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community, the confusing outcome is confounding. Most American Jews cannot fathom how any Israeli can tolerate a leader who bonds with President Donald Trump, flirts with Kahanists, demonizes Arabs and blusters about annexing the West Bank.

I have problems with Netanyahu, too. But abandoning the people of Israel because the nation of Israel has trouble disentangling from this admittedly charismatic and surprisingly successful leader is not just unfair but spoiled. The Blue and White Party’s results show that Bibi’s Israel is only one of many Israels that exist. If you’re disappointed, acknowledge the disappointment, fight to improve matters, but also view this one leader in a broader context.

“Regardless of who governs Israel, American Jews should seek other sources of leverage to strengthen Israel-Diaspora relations and advance their agenda.”

Considering Israel as a Jewish Democratic State — the Jewish national homeland — offers four lenses for viewing the campaign and its outcome:

Israel as a Jewish state: The election raised a red flag — the state’s Jewishness must not become right-wing property. Judaism is not the opposite of democracy — nor, as American Jews would testify, is Judaism hostile to liberalism. Shame on right-wingers for trying to monopolize the Jewishness issue, and shame on left-wingers for abdicating on it. Fortunately, as true centrists, Blue and White leaders integrated the word “Jewishness” into their vocabulary as a spur to morality, outreach and democracy.

Israel as a democracy: Critics will deem every vote for Bibi as a vote against democracy. I disagree. Instead, we should salute the Middle East’s only free and functional democracy — and the world’s 10th oldest continuous democracy — for another peaceful election. Add props to Blue and White for making democracy and the fight against corruption a centerpiece of its campaign.

Israel as a state: Bibi’s sweet spot. Even Blue and White admitted that Netanyahu has been effective diplomatically, economically and existentially. Those disappointed with Bibi’s survival should recognize that Bibi’s supporters are not dupes — they figured that prime ministers are not popes. They respect his accomplishments.

Israel’s Diaspora: Many American Jews are left wondering how their feelings were so irrelevant despite polls showing that 95 percent of Israelis value Diaspora relations. Israelis’ concern for the Diaspora doesn’t affect electoral outcomes for the same reason that many American Jews will vote against Trump despite his support for Israel. Most American Jews don’t vote pro-Israel; they vote anti-Trump or pro-choice and social justice. It doesn’t make them anti-Israel, just more concerned with domestic issues when voting — which requires you to choose one person or party. Similarly, Israelis don’t vote peoplehood but statehood — especially security.

Israel will survive and thrive. The Israel-Diaspora relationship should survive and thrive. But regardless of who governs Israel, American Jews should seek other sources of leverage to strengthen Israel-Diaspora relations and advance their agenda. And they should reach out to Israelis who care about their brothers and sisters abroad, but who feel they have to vote to keep the state alive first.

Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Toronto and author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas.”