Bibi Is A Blessing — For U.S. Jews

Before the Israeli election, Shimon Peres’ opponents launched a preemptive strike. Anticipating a close election, they said even if he won, Peres had no mandate to make further concessions for peace. Presumably, the converse is true after Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow victory; he has no mandate to reverse the Labor policies. In fact, unless Netanyahu reneges on the government’s agreements, or dramatically shifts Israel’s policies away from peace, he will likely become one of the most popular Prime Ministers in history — at least in America.

For the general American public and members of Congress, perceptions about Israel are more important than reality. So long as Bibi is seen as pursuing peace, being the party pushing for solutions rather than creating obstacles, Israel’s image will remain as good as it is today. The problem with the previous Likud governments was less substance than style. Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin came across as reluctant participants in the peace process rather than as catalysts. Even if Netanyahu fails to make any progress, he can retain a positive image by using the word peace in every sentence he utters and putting out a stream of proposals for advancing negotiations.

This will require Netanyahu to radically change his rhetoric. Prior to the election campaign, he had become Bibi-one note, obsessed with the demonization of the PLO. Peres and Rabin may have failed to completely rehabilitate the PLO’s image, but Netanyahu cannot make people believe it has not changed.

The State Department will certainly not be happy with any Israeli government that doesn’t see peace as the paramount goal, whatever the cost. Still, for now, Netanyahu can count on the most pro-Israel President in history to support his policies.

For American Jews, Netanyahu’s victory will be a blessing. First, Bibi speaks “American.” He is fluent in English, understands the United States and knows how to communicate to American audiences. This will help in making the case for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, in fundraising, in public relations.

In policy terms, the change in government will have surprisingly little impact. American Jews have no influence on the peace process anyway, so the main difference in the policy of organizations will be in rhetoric. The focus will shift from Peres’ “vision thing” to the risks of peace and threats of terrorism, Islamic radicalism and nuclear proliferation. The fundraisers will love this since they discovered peace didn’t sell with the masses. The “peace” organizations should also be revitalized since they can now warn of threats to their agenda.

It is true that polls indicated strong support for the peace process among American Jews, but sympathy for specific policies adopted by Peres and Rabin was much weaker. In particular, few people were comfortable with the idea of trusting Arafat or a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. It will not take much for the major organizations to dust off the old hasbarah to support Netanyahu’s policies.

The only tangible policy shift may involve support for U.S.-PLO ties and aid to the Palestinians. This mainly affects the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which lobbied Congress to support both. AIPAC’s been in a bind. To be honest, it had to issue reports documenting the PLO’s failure to comply with its commitments, but the Israeli government wanted AIPAC to support legislation providing aid to the Palestinians. It was no secret that this caused divisions within AIPAC. Now, if Netanyahu asserts, as he has all along, that the PLO is not in compliance, and that Israel does not believe the Palestinians should receive U.S. aid, AIPAC will reverse policy. It won’t be called a reversal, of course, since AIPAC can say it always maintained the PLO must be in compliance. Before it was complying, now it’s not.

The right-wing organizations will now be closer to the mainstream, but the change in Israeli policy will make them even less important, since the establishment will now support the same policies. The truth is these groups never exerted any influence, unless you count the nudnik factor, which forced Israeli and State Department officials to spend time putting out fires they set. Netanyahu is smart enough to know that the major organizations like AIPAC will still be the ones he needs to promote the U.S.-Israel relationship, so don’t expect him to suddenly embrace marginal groups just because they masqueraded as Likud USA.

The bad news is the Likud will also reap what it has sown in terms of legitimating public opposition to the Israeli government. Anyone who objects to Netanyahu’s policies will feel no hesitancy about criticizing them or lobbying Congress to subvert them. And Netanyahu will have no grounds for criticizing members of the Israeli opposition from coming to the United States to attack him. I still believer in presenting a united front in support of the democratically-elected government to the American public, but what the left started, the right has institutionalized.

Perhaps the bigger threat to harmony between diaspora and Israeli Jewry is the increase in power of religious political parties. If Netanyahu gives them the key cabinet positions they expect, and religious ministers use their positions to radically alter the status quo in Israel (e.g., reviving the “who is a Jew” debate), a far greater fissure may be opened than already exists between our communities.

The voters of Israel have spoken. American Jews must respect their judgement. Let’s hope the new Prime Minister shows respect for ours.