Last week, many were shocked when Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu was elected for his fourth term in office. Polls taken only a week before the election showed anywhere from it being a close race to the most powerful opposing party – the Zionist Union – being in a four to five seat lead. Netanyahu rallied his party – the Likud
Party – into a solid lead, six seats ahead of the Zionist Union.
Let’s diverge here a bit to discuss how Israeli politics work. It is a parliamentary democracy with three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Citizens vote for the Judicial branch, which is composed of a 120 member parliament, known as the Knesset. People vote on parties (or coalitions as it may be), rather than voting for particular representatives. These votes give each party a proportional amount of seats in the Knesset. A party would need 61 seats to ensure majority and become a ruling coalition. However, no party has ever done this, giving the smaller parties to have power and political say despite only holding a few seats. For example, the leading party, the Likud Party, holds 30 seats. The Zionist Union follows behind at 24. There are a total of ten parties in the parliament, with the smallest sitting with 5 seats.
The Executive branch is headed by the Prime Minister, who is selected by the Knesset. There is a president, though it is mostly a ceremonial role. The real executive power lies with the Prime Minister, currently Benjamin Netanyahu. The Legislative branch is composed of courts, tribunals, and a Supreme Court which operates by the states’ Basic Laws.
The Likud Party is center-right party, with an emphasis on peace, security, and Jewish rights to the land. The Zionist Union is a center-left party with an emphasis on solving economic woes and forming/repairing alliances. The Joint List, a coalition party of multiple Arab Parties, came in as the next most powerful party with 14 seats. They have a diverse platform, but have a united focus in gaining rights for Arab people in the area.
Of this division of powers that are seemingly at odds with one another, Micah Friedman, the Student Director of Hillel at FSU, said to me “The Jewish tradition has a long history of encouraging passionate debate among those who disagree that dates back to the legendary Rabbis Hillel and Shammai who lived in the same land as modern day Israel in the first century BCE and engaged in vehement debates about the correct interpretation of Jewish law and tradition.” And that the re-election of Netanyahu asserts that “in order to be a supporter and friend of the state of Israel, one is not required to feel affectionately towards every elected Israeli official or agree with the merits of any particular policy of the Israeli government.”
The controversy arises from the comments used by Netanyahu in the weekend before the elections, seen as pandering by some, and extremist by others. Netanyahu radically ramped up his politics, swinging his right wing policies to the extreme right, stating that no Palestinian state would be formed under his watch, and warning Jewish voters that Arabs would take the vote if they didn’t show up to vote for him. He has since apologized for the latter, though to little avail. Many people, including Israel’s allies, feel uneasy about these comments. Tension with President Obama and other officials in Washington comes especially high, since Netanyahu showed great disdain about the talks of a nuclear deal with Iran.
David Tenenbaum, Communications Chair of Noles for Israel, offered a few counterpoints. He stated that Netanyahu’s comments were taken heavily out of context, and that he has now offered concessions to the Palestinians after winning.
“All he was saying was that right now, there are not the conditions for Palestinian statehood and a PEACEFUL two state solution,” Tenenbaum said, “We can make a state, sure, but if the government is overthrown by radical Islamists who then attack Israel, we’re back to 1948.”
Friedman, who has proclaimed he is a Zionist and not the biggest fan of Netanyahu, agreed, stating:
“I along with leadership in the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements and the White House reject the notion that Netanyahu encouraged on election day that Arab or Palestinian citizens of Israel executing their right to vote within the democratic state somehow threatens Israel.”
Tenenbaum offered the point that there is no peace partner for Israel at the moment, and that creating two states – Israel as it is and Palestine, which would be ruled by the Palestinian Authority, a group which already governs the West Bank and Gaza Strip – would lead to a bloody war that nobody wants.
“That’s why it was so egregious that Netanyahu’s comments were taken out of context i.e. the part where he said “no state….TODAY” because the conditions aren’t there for peaceful two state solution. “ said Tenenbaum, “maybe it will be different in a year or 2 years, who knows. But in this instant, it’s not feasible.”
And the danger is real. The biggest threat to the stability of Israel is Hamas, a radical militant Islamist group with two major goals: create a Palestinian nation and destroy Israel. As Tenenbaum sees it, there is no true peace partner for Israel. If the state was to be split into two, the Hamas would overthrow the Palestinian Authority and pose an immense threat to Israeli national security.
Friedman agreed to a degree that the current conditions may not be ideal for a two state solution, but still thought it would be for the best stating “although at the moment the prospects for a negotiated peace deal does not look particularly bright, I am of the belief that a two-state solution is the best model that has been proposed so far with which to work when attempting to guarantee peace and human rights, which my Jewish values lead me to consider sacred, for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
I also asked both about the political dissonance caused by Netanyahu’s comments and re-election, to which Friedman replied, “I have faith and hope that the strength of the relationship between the US and Israel will stand the test of time even as there are currently differences in preferred policy between the leaders of the two countries”
Tenenbaum stated, “The reality is that Obama and Netanyahu never got along, and have always had a petty little feud. It’s blown up recently because Obama is desperate for a worthless deal with Iran… and is incensed at Netanyahu for going to Congress to dispute said plan… In democracies people vote, and somebody wins. Even if our president doesn’t like the choice that the Israeli voters made…”
Both men stuck to their people and their nation. Tenenbaum asserted that no matter what happened, Israel and the Israeli people would stand strong and come out victorious. Friedman stated well that “I choose to support the state of Israel and defend our Jewish state of which I am proud from those who contemptuously and categorically, without arguments grounded in fact, slander the entire Zionist project which seeks to allow the Jewish people to have self-autonomy to ensure the survival of our people and speak out against those who call for the destruction not just of the Jewish state but of the entire Jewish people.”
Both Micah Friedman and David Tenenbaum wished to assert that these are their own personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations.
By ROBERT COCANOUGHER / Managing Editor