Israeli elections awaited in D.C.

Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi said next week’s election could decide whether Israel continues to exist as a liberal democracy. Photo by Aryeh Schwartz.

As Israelis in the Washington area contemplate returning home to cast a vote in the April 9 parliamentary
election, area Jewish groups are hosting a slew of election-themed events to preview what increasingly appears a tight race.

On Sunday, Moishe House Northern Virginia hosted two local shlichim, or Israeli emissaries, and local Jews cast votes in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s mock election. Those results will be revealed on April 8, when Haaretz Washington correspondent Amir Tibon discusses the election’s stakes.

American-born Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi offered his view of the subject on March 28, when he discussed the rightward shift of Israeli politics. For Israeli leadership to become a unifying force within the Jewish state, the electorate must return to centrism in its April 9 election, Halevi said at Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue.

Israelis living in the United States have the option to vote in the upcoming election, but they must to do so in person by returning home. Certain government employees like shlichim, however, are eligible to cast their vote from abroad. According to Haaretz, estimates of the number of Israelis living in the United States range from 100,000 to 1 million.

Halevi, the co-director of Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute, previewed the highly contentious upcoming elections in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces what many observers think is his most challenging re-election bid since he won back the position in 2008.

To shore up his election prospects, Halevi said Netanyahu has moved to the right at an accelerating pace, recently adding the far-right anti-Muslim party Otzma Yehudit to its coalition. Halevi, a self-described centrist, said Netanyahu’s nationalist shift will lead him to vote in opposition to the prime minister’s Likud Party, though Halevi did not say which party he plans to support.

“The center today is focused on an imminent nightmare, from my point of view as a centrist, and that’s if the right-wing coalition wins and forms the next government, it will be a hard-right government and the first move they will try to do in the government is to annex Area C [of the West Bank],” Halevi said. “This would foreclose the option of a two-state solution.”

Halevi argued that Israeli politics is now defined by a center-right divide. The left, according to Halevi, is no longer an important player given security concerns that have only risen in recent weeks with rocket attacks from Gaza.

He pointed to Netanyahu’s attempt to paint former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz — whose Kahol Lavan coalition poses the biggest threat to Netanyahu’s rule according to recent polls — as a leftist.

“The left has become so beyond the pale for many Israelis that the Likud’s entire campaign against Gantz is an attempt to portray him not as a centrist but as a leftist,” Halevi said. “I often feel that what remains of the Israeli left can be found in the American Jewish community.”

A March 31 poll showed a tight race between Gantz’s and Netanyahu’s coalitions. The Channel 12 survey showed Kahol Lavan capturing 32 seats to Likud’s 28. Trailing far behind was the left-wing Labor party with just eight seats.

But 38 percent of Israelis polled said they wanted Netanyahu to remain prime minister, while 36 percent said they wanted Gantz to lead the government. Whichever coalition wins April 9 will ultimately need 61 seats to form a government.

Halevi said Netanyahu is largely disliked in Israel and even within his own administration, as evidenced by
associates aiding the attorney general’s investigation into charges of corruption against Netanyahu. But he said that Israelis trust Netanyahu in an increasingly unstable region.

“I also am very nervous about the prospect of him losing,” Halevi said. “I desperately want him to lose and yet I’m very nervous about the aftermath.”

For Halevi, who said Netanyahu has used his position to launch attacks on the country’s democratic institutions, the election could decide whether Israel continues to exist as a liberal democracy, or if it moves closer to an ethno-state identity.

“What we’ve seen in the last two years is an increasingly desperate prime minister has basically adapted a
Trumpian model,” Halevi said, making reference to U.S. President Donald Trump. “The assault on our institutions is coming from the very top.”

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