Israelis are tired of Benjamin Netanyahu, their scandal-scarred prime minister, but apparently not so tired that they are prepared to turn the reins of power to a center-left coalition.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party finished second in Israel’s parliamentary elections Wednesday, but the parties of Israel’s right emerged as the apparent winners, according to exit polls. Both Netanyahu and his opponent, Benny Gantz, a former general, claimed victory.
For Netanyahu and Israel, it looks like 2009 all over again. Back then, Likud and Netanyahu took the silver but ultimately claimed the prize after the winning centrist party failed to establish a governing coalition. Still, it is also clear that Netanyahu no longer holds the hearts of his countrymen, if he ever did.
With a Netanyahu-led government emerging the likely outcome, Israel’s status as another point of conflagration in America’s cold civil war—along with Trump, immigration, and abortion—will be assured.
Appearing before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas last Saturday, Trump left no doubt about his love for his Israeli counterpart. His affection was reciprocated. Netanyahu-Trump billboards plastered Israel’s intersections. As for the Democrats, the story could not have been any more different.
This past Sunday, Beto O’Rourke called Bibi a racist, no sugar coating there. On Monday, Bernie Sanders expressed his hope that Netanyahu lost, and somewhere in between Pete Buttigieg voiced his displeasure with Netanyahu’s plans for annexation of parts of the West Bank. All this is a long way from President Harry Truman recognizing Israel or President Bill Clinton embracing the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s slain prime minister.
Practically, Sanders & Co. are a lot closer to the world views held by President Jimmy Carter, a one-term president, and the late Sen. George McGovern, the Democrats’ failed 1972 presidential nominee. They are also nearer to where the Democratic rank-and-file now stands. As the Republicans learned during the 2016 presidential primaries, the wishes of the donor base are not necessarily in sync with those of the voters.
To be clear, this did not happen overnight. Rather, it is a product of changing realities and demographics in both countries.
When Israelis went to the polls in 2015, Netanyahu was busy warning Israel’s Jews that the country’s Arabs—who are Israeli citizens—were voting “in droves.” To many Democrats, including President Obama, Netanyahu’s campaign pitch sounded flatly racist: “How dare they vote?” This time, reports have emerged of Netanyahu’s Likud Party planted cameras at Arab polling stations to intimidate Arab Israelis. The lyrics are new; the tune remains the same.
Even as a minority- and youth-driven upstairs-downstairs coalition is occupying a larger space within the Democratic Party in the United States, Israel’s blood-and-soil roots are becoming more visible. Bluest America doesn’t cotton all that well to an increasingly ethnically and religiously driven Jewish state, much as Israeli Jews are not feeling warm and fuzzy over relaxed immigration policies and diversity as ends in themselves. By the numbers, nearly three-quarters of Israelis want fewer or no new immigrants, according to Pew.
Like Trump, Netanyahu could care less about the Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant, a pastiche of millennials, minorities, and women. Despite howls from the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Netanyahu made his peace and a pact with Israel’s version of the KKK—“Otzma Yehudit,” the Jewish Power Party—much as Trump received the backing of white nationalists and David Duke in his bid against Hillary Clinton.
Said differently, unadulterated ethno-nationalism is in full bloom in the Land of Milk and Honey. Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s combative son, had previously posted to his Facebook page memes of Pepe the Frog and George Soros, and actually won plaudits from Duke. At the time, Ehud Barak, who had unseated Yair’s father in 1999 for the prime minister’s job, had this to tweet: “Is this what the boy hears at home? Is it genetics or his very own mental illness?”
Although most Americans remain pro-Israel, the same cannot be said for liberal Democrats. According to Gallup, nearly as many liberal Democrats sympathize more with the Palestinians (38 percent) as with the Israelis (41 percent), a virtual tie that hints at what’s in store during the 2020 primary season and at the Democratic convention slated for Milwaukee.
In case anyone forgot, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), then a congressman, was booed at the 1988 Democratic Convention over the party’s stance toward Israel and the Palestinians. At the 2016 convention, the Democrats again embraced a pro-Israel platform despite audibly voiced dissatisfaction by the convention delegates.
This time out, don’t expect differences to be readily papered over. Netanyahu’s Israel is a political flashpoint, and one that our president will pounce on with glee.
Even before the election results, Trump was pushing for American Jews to abandon the Democratic Party aka Jexodous, a gambit that has received a ton of attention. Although the chances of wholesale rejection are unlikely, recent polls show Trump barely underwater, 45-52, among New York’s Jewish voters.
Anxiety among Jewish voters caused by the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib is real and palpable. Expect the president to magnify those concerns in the months ahead, and Prime Minister Netanyahu to go all-in for his very best friend, an outcome that is great for the GOP, but for Israel and the Democrats not so much.