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American Jews Expected to Back Netanyahu--For Now

Israel: But the apparent new prime minister's hard-line policies and right-wing government could eventually alienate the centrist and liberal factions of U.S. community, experts warn.

June 01, 1996|From Religion News Service

Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent election victory in Israel could well lead to political and religious conflict between any right-wing government he is likely to form and a sizable segment of the leadership of the American Jewish community.

At least for now, the mainstream leadership of the American Jewish community--despite its generally liberal or centrist views--is expected to fall in line behind a Netanyahu-led government.

"The main American Jewish groups will embrace Netanyahu," said Henry Siegman, Middle East Project director for the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress. "He is well-known here and is sufficiently popular."

American Jews' bottom-line loyalty to Israel and fear of politically undermining the Jewish state at a particularly difficult time will also serve to mute immediate public criticism, Siegman and other American Jewish leaders said this week.

But sooner or later, Netanyahu's hard-line views on the peace process and his need to keep Israel's more religious parliament members within his governing coalition are likely to bring him into conflict with a significant number of American Jewish leaders.

While no one questions that overall American Jewish support for Israel will remain strong, some American Jewish leaders said that increased tensions could dampen the enthusiasm with which that support is expressed.

That, in turn, could mean a drop in American Jewish financial support for Israel and a decline in tourism to Israel.

"I think we're in for some very hard times," said Gail Pressberg, Washington director of Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish group and staunch supporter of dovish Prime Minister Shimon Peres, whom Netanyahu apparently defeated in Wednesday's vote.

One area of potential political disagreement is the question of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Netanyahu, leader of the hard-line Likud Party, favors "strengthening" existing Jewish settlements, although he has been vague on whether he will create settlements or expand existing ones.

Any increase in settlement activity is sure to enrage Palestinians and further endanger peace negotiations, which Netanyahu promised would proceed more cautiously if he won the election.

The leading American Jewish groups have, to varying degrees, agreed with the policy of halting settlement expansion and trading land to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs--a policy championed by Peres and his predecessor, the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.

"Publicly, there will be a show of agreement" among American Jewish leaders, Pressberg said. But "behind the scenes a lot of Jewish groups will be pressing [Netanyahu] not to be hasty on the settlement issue. We can't be silent on such an important issue, and that could cause a lot of friction."

However, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, contends that liberals such as Pressberg do not speak for the rank and file of the American Jewish community. In his view, most American Jews are more skeptical of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--despite a January poll by the American Jewish Committee that found 79% of American Jews support the process.

Klein noted that the same survey showed that 89% of American Jews feel that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was not doing enough to prevent terrorist attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process.

That concern for security, Klein said, was the issue that apparently won the election for Netanyahu.

"The leadership of the leading liberal American Jewish groups are out of touch," Klein said. "They speak only for themselves, not the average American Jew."

In addition to Netanyahu, Israel's Orthodox Jewish political parties emerged as big election winners, increasing their representation in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

The religious parties' increased strength makes them essential to Netanyahu as he attempts to cobble together a ruling coalition of 61 Knesset members--one more than half the 120 Knesset seats. Netanyahu's own Likud Party apparently won just 31 seats, nine less then it previously held.

In return for joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, the religious parties are sure to push the new government to limit the inroads that American-style Reform and Conservative Judaism have been making in Israel.

That is likely to bring them--and Netanyahu--into conflict with the leading American Jewish religious movements, the Reform and Conservative branches. Under Israel's Labor Party governments, led by Rabin and Peres, Reform and Conservative Judaism slowly gained ground against Israel's Orthodox religious monopoly.

Those efforts at liberalization--which included a campaign to win official Israeli government recognition of non-Orthodox religious movements--are now threatened.

Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, couldn't be happier about that prospect.

"We're extremely, extremely pleased. This sends a strong message about the great demand for a return to [traditional Jewish] values in Israel," he said.

But for Rabbi Amiel Hirsch, director of the Assn. of Reform Zionists of America, Reform Judaism's Israel branch, Netanyahu's apparent win and the surge in Israeli Orthodox political power constitute a "disaster."

"Israel cannot have a proper relationship with the American Jewish diaspora if it turns back the clock on embracing religious pluralism within Judaism," Hirsch said.

"This is a clash that's about more than politics or parochial religious viewpoints. It's a clash of world views."

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