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Jewish groups praise new government, hope for reset with Diaspora

With Haredim out of coalition, some liberal organizations cautiously anticipate greater religious pluralism in Israel, while others believe little will change

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for a group photo of the new government, at the president's residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for a group photo of the new government, at the president's residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

A panoply of Jewish organizations welcomed the swearing-in of Israel’s new government Sunday, celebrating the wide-tent coalition for its diversity, while liberal groups expressed cautious hopes for more inclusive religious policies and movement on the peace front.

“This new government proudly reflects Israel’s broad and diverse societal makeup with political parties from the left to the right,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “We are encouraged that the government’s wide-ranging agenda encompasses several important issues for ADL, including strengthening Israel’s security, addressing challenges of social cohesion in Israeli society, advancing religious pluralism and the relationships with Diaspora Jewish communities, securing Israel’s democratic foundations, providing assistance for Israel’s underserved communities and many others.”

On Sunday, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett became Israel’s prime minister, heading an unwieldy coalition of left, center and right-wing parties cobbled together by Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, the new alternate prime minister and foreign minister, to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in power.

While the coalition features a wide range of parties, the two ultra-Orthodox parties are in the opposition, raising hopes among pluralistic streams of Judaism for an end to Haredi hegemony over religion and state issues in Israel.

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 2, 2016. (Courtesy Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism)

The Reform Jewish Movement in North America said it hoped Bennett, who is Israel’s first Orthodox leader, would move to repair ties with the mostly non-Orthodox Diaspora and push ahead with plans to open up parts of the Western Wall to pluralistic streams of Judaism.

“We are hopeful that this new government, unprecedented in the ideological diversity of its members, will be able to implement many of the aspirations that PM Bennett laid out in his inaugural speech,” the movement said in a statement. “We hope the government will renew ties with our Movement in Israel and abroad, commit to furthering a pluralistic agenda, combat extremism and incitement – including through police enforcement against the horrific incidents of hatred and physical violence as seen on Friday at the Western Wall plaza — and be a government for all of Israel’s citizens. We also hope this government will reaffirm the importance of a strong US-Israel relationship, prioritizing bipartisan outreach and engagement.”

In a speech presenting his government on Sunday, Bennett issued a laundry list of priorities, including ending an ultra-Orthodox monopoly on kosher certification, and promised that it would work for all segments of society, including those who did not support his decision to build a coalition with left-leaning parties and the Islamist Ra’am.

Ron Lauder, a philanthropist with close connections to Israeli leaders who heads the World Jewish Congress, said he recalled Bennett’s “concern for all Jews, regardless of whether they were Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or secular. I am certain that going forward, he, Foreign Minister Lapid, and their colleagues in the new government will be equally committed to the unity of the Jewish people, both in Israel and across the globe.”

Prime Minister-designate Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, June 13, 2021 (Noam Moscowitz / Knesset spokesperson’s office)

During his 12 years in power, Netanyahu was accused of exacerbating a rift between Israeli and world Jewry, backing ultra-Orthodox allies over liberal streams of Judaism in the Diaspora and aligning himself politically with populist politicians in the US and Europe, which drove a wedge between Israel and more liberal Jewish communities.

J Street, a dovish pro-Israel lobby in Washington that has been harshly critical of Netanyahu, called his ouster “cause for great relief.”

But it also expressed reservations about the new government’s right-wing elements — Bennett is a former settlement movement leader and opposes Palestinian statehood — and urged the US to push the new Israeli leadership toward “diplomacy and compromise.”

“While we have reason to hope that the new government will be far more moderate and reasonable than its predecessor in many areas, we have no reason to expect that it will end the intolerable, unjust and deteriorating status quo of endless occupation and recurring violence. Naftali Bennett has consistently presented himself as an even more hardline, pro-settlement, anti-Palestinian, right-wing alternative,” J Street head Jeremy Ben Ami said.

From left to right: Yamina party members Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz at an event in the Elkana settlement on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

On the other end of the political spectrum, the hawkish Zionist Organization of America also welcomed Bennett taking the reins and also expressed reservations. “PM Bennett has a moral duty to promote the rational right-of-center agenda that his party and the majority of the Israeli electorate voted for, despite some of his diverse ruling coalition’s left-wing, naive positions and unfortunate aversion to Judaism,” said ZOA head Morton Klein.

Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel Democratic group in the US, praised the new government but attempted to temper hopes for major changes. “Just as we do not expect President Biden and the Democratic majorities to solve all of America’s problems overnight, we cannot expect Israel’s new government to instantly deal with all of that country’s challenges; but we welcome the sense of hope and the commitment to change sweeping both of these great democracies,” the group said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrive for a joint press conference in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021, days after an Egypt-brokered truce halted fighting between the Jewish state and the Gaza Strip’s rulers Hamas. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Netanyahu had famously worked closely with the Donald Trump administration, but has somewhat less enthusiastic ties with the administration of US President Joe Biden, which wasted no time in congratulating the new leadership. Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Bennett and Lapid on Sunday.

“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations,” Biden said in a White House statement.

A number of US lawmakers were similarly quick to welcome the new coalition.

“Americans and Israelis share many values, first and foremost our commitment to upholding and preserving democratic ideals. We will continue to work together to strengthen and enhance areas of cooperation including security, energy, science and technology,” Rep. Ted Deutch (Democrat of Florida) tweeted.

Many of the groups issuing congratulations had also worked closely with Netanyahu, and thanked him while welcoming the new government.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu demonstrated impressive leadership on many issues, including expanding Israel’s diplomatic ties with nations around the world, extending peace with four Arab countries, maintaining Israel’s security in a volatile region, promoting exceptional achievements in innovation, spearheading the widely-admired handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and explaining eloquently Israel’s unique challenges on the global stage,” said American Jewish Committee head David Harris. “We will gladly work with the new government, where appropriate, to help build on these remarkable achievements, as well as to strengthen the essential ties that bind the Jewish state and Jews around the world.”

The America Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a tweet that it looked “forward to further bolstering the bond between the United States and Israel as the two democracies work in close partnership to advance our shared interests and values.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wearing a face mask due to the coronavirus outbreak, seen in the plenum hall of the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We salute outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his years of dedicated leadership and service to Israel and its people, as well as his contributions to world Jewry. His immense legacy, including the Abraham Accords, leaves an indelible mark on the history of Israel and the entire region,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said.

Notably not issuing any statements as of Monday morning in Israel was the Israeli American Council, a pro-Israel group in the US funded by Miriam Adelson and her late husband Sheldon, both major supporters of Netanyahu.

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