Netanyahu facing challenges, criticism from Jewish liberals

By Ron Kampeas, JTA World News Service

WASHINGTON (JTA) – With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing escalating criticism and pressure from the White House, he could use some help from Israel’s erstwhile allies in the American Jewish community — especially those with sway in liberal and Democratic circles.

But several leading Jewish liberal critics of Netanyahu are working to rally American Jewish opinion against him by stepping up their condemnations of the prime minister and calling on the United States to ratchet up the pressure on Israel.

The epicenter of this liberal Jewish push is the annual J Street conference in Washington, where in a speech on Saturday night to 3,000 attendees, the group’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, accused Netanyahu of harming the U.S.-Israel relationship through “partisan gamesmanship” and called on the Obama administration to put forth the parameters for a resolution to the conflict at the U.N. Security Council.

Ben Ami’s remarks came days after another harsh Netanyahu critic, Peter Beinart, called for the Obama administration to “punish” Israel on several fronts — including by backing Palestinian “bids” at the United Nations and denying visas to and freezing the assets of Israeli settler leaders. Beinart also urged American Jews to ensure that Netanyahu and members of his Cabinet are met with protesters at Jewish events.

While more establishment liberal and centrist Jewish organizations show no signs of writing off the prime minister or endorsing such aggressive steps, some have expressed concerns about Netanyahu’s 11th-hour campaign tactics — specifically 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.

Leaders of the two largest religious streams in American Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements, both issued statements last week condemning Netanyahu’s comments about Arab-Israeli voters.

“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.”

For his part, Netanyahu moved quickly post-election to contain the damage from his pre-election remarks, holding interviews with several U.S. media outlets in which he insisted that he remains committed to a two-state solution but circumstances do not allow for one because of Palestinian intransigence and ongoing turmoil across the region.

Netanyahu 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.

In a sign that Netanyahu was seeking to send the word out beyond his conservative base, the prime minister not only did an interview with Fox News, but talked with two leading liberal media outlets, MSNBC and NPR.

Several mainstream centrist organizations — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League — were quick to embrace Netanyahu’s post-election insistence. AIPAC criticized the Obama administration for having “rebuffed” the prime minister’s efforts to put relations with the United States back on track.

“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the U.S.,” AIPAC said. “In contrast to their comments, we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East.”

Such statements signaled strong support for the prime minister, but they also underscored the extent to which influential American Jewish groups see support for a two-state solution as a key strategy for calming U.S.-Israeli tensions. Israel’s support for two states has served as a central rhetorical point for mainstream pro-Israel groups that have long argued that Israel is more willing to sacrifice for peace than its Arab counterparts.

Yet even as Netanyahu sought to defuse the controversy over his remarks, reports suggested that the makeup of his emerging coalition could keep U.S.-Israeli tensions boiling on several fronts.

The first party he invited into the government was Jewish Home, which rejects a Palestinian state. Another likely coalition partner, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, who recently said that disloyal Arab-Israelis should be beheaded. The coalition government is also likely to include include haredi Orthodox parties, whose rejection of non-Orthodox streams has been a cause of tension with U.S. Jews for decades.

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. If history is any indication, the haredi parties will vigorously oppose the introduction of civil marriage and increased recognition of and funding for the Reform and Conservative streams.