WASHINGTON — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battled for his political survival Wednesday, after a tight election that left him short of a Knesset majority, liberal US Jews delighted in the possibility of an end to the era of “King Bibi.”
After 10 years of Netanyahu rule, which saw a dramatic deterioration in ties between Jerusalem and the Democratic Party, liberal activists and Jewish leaders expressed hope that a new Israeli premier could repair the damage.
“For many progressive American Jews, Benjamin Netanyahu has become synonymous with reactionary Israeli policies and objectionable political attitudes,” Ori Nir, Americans for Peace Now’s communications director, told The Times of Israel.
“Having someone else at the helm, someone who represents a different set of values and a different style — even if temporarily, as a part of a rotation agreement – could rebuild among US Jews the sense of trust and affinity that has been cracked under Netanyahu in the past decade.”
According to the latest ballot count Wednesday, Netanyahu’s Likud party fell short of a Knesset majority. With 95 percent of the votes counted, the Blue and White party was projected to win 33 seats, keeping a slight edge over Likud at 32 seats.
The Likud-led bloc including Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina, would give Netanyahu 56 backers for the premiership, five seats shy of the 61 needed to form a government, leaving Netanyahu in his most vulnerable position in recent years.
US President Donald Trump implicitly acknowledged as much on Wednesday.
When asked if had spoken with the prime minister since the election, he told reporters: “I have not. Those results are coming in and it’s very close. Everybody knew it’s going to be very close. We’ll see what happens. Look, our relationship is with Israel. We’ll see what happens.”
A White House official declined to comment on whether the coalition outcome would delay the release of the administration’s peace plan.
Netanyahu made his close relationship with Trump a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, erecting billboards across the country showing him with the US president and other foreign leaders. He often cast aspersions on his rivals’ ability to match his diplomatic achievements.
But Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump over the last three years has further distanced him from many US Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal. Most recently, he outraged Democrats by capitulating to Trump’s demand to ban two Democratic congresswomen from entering Israel.
A new prime minister, however, could take the country in a different direction and help to restore bipartisan support for Israel on Capitol Hill, a veteran Jewish Democratic operative told The Times of Israel.
“Any outcome that gives Bibi less power is going to improve relations with Jerusalem and Democratic leaders in Congress,” said Aaron Keyak, a former chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
“It’s no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone all-in on his alliance with President Trump, and anything that moves away from that, or softens that reality, is not only going to improve relations between the Israelis and Democratic leadership, but also with Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community.”
What’s more, Netanyahu has not endeared himself to the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, especially after he canceled his original decision to allow for a pluralistic prayer section at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
Debra Newman Kamin, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization of Conservative rabbis, said she was hoping he would not remain in office.
“I personally would be quite happy with those results,” she told The Times of Israel. “I understand that many in the Israeli public view him as Mr. Security, but he has not been a friend to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. He’s done nothing to promote religious pluralism. As a matter of fact, he moved it backwards in playing coalition politics.”
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has promised to honor the Western Wall agreement if elected.
Keyak said that a new government could also forge better ties with Democrats and liberal American Jews if it took more initiative on the peace process and avoided making Israel look like a Republican cause.
“It’s not just about the personality, it’s about the policy,” he said. “I have to believe that any power-sharing agreement or center-left prime minister will lead to policies that are more in line with American Jewish values. I think some of the biggest pressure points with the American Jewish community over Bibi’s premiership would likely have been lessened or altogether avoided under a leader like Benny Gantz.”
According to Keyak, that includes who the premier chooses to place in sensitive diplomatic roles. “It starts at the top, but it also includes the people they choose to represent their government,” he said. “It’s not just one individual, it starts at the top-down.”
While the DC insider did not mention Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer by name, Democrats have blamed him for politicizing Israel in Washington. A former Republican operative, Dermer brokered Netanyahu’s backdoor speech to Congress in 2015 and has been a vocal Trump defender.
Kamin, for her part, argued that Netanyahu’s reneged support for a two-state solution — and overall drift toward illiberalism — was hurting Israel’s image.
“I think he’s a bad brand outside of Israel,” she said. “If Bibi’s reign is over, I think that will be an opening for people to look at Israel in a different way.”