WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory risks deepening the divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, US Jewish leaders have said in the campaign’s aftermath, especially if he follows through on his election-eve promise to annex West Bank settlements.
Such a move would alienate the Jewish state from most American Jews, who overwhelmingly lean left of center, and divide the American Jewish community on Israel’s moral standing, the heads of several powerful Jewish organizations told The Times of Israel.
If Netanyahu unilaterally extended Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, as he promised to do in interviews leading up to the election, it would “foreclose any possibility of a two-state solution,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “I think that would create a dramatic rupture with many in the American Jewish community.”
“And it’s not because they don’t love Israel,” he added. “It’s because they do love Israel.”
In the days before the election, Netanyahu vowed on television to gradually apply Israeli sovereignty to all settlements — those in the so-called blocs, as well as isolated settlements, which are home to a total of some 400,000 Israelis — and said that he wanted and hoped to do so with US approval.
(He added that he was not talking about annexing all of Area C — the 60% of the West Bank that includes all the settlements and is home to over 100,000 Palestinians.)
It was not immediately clear whether this was an empty campaign promise aimed at turning out his right-wing base, or the introduction of a policy he would genuinely pursue.
Days before Israelis went to the polls in 2015, the prime minister said a Palestinian state would never emerge on his watch — comments he walked back immediately after clinching power. But that was when Barack Obama was president, and pressuring him to make strides for peace in ways that US President Donald Trump is not.
David Halperin, the executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for a two-state solution, said that Netanyahu’s remarks were deeply problematic regardless of whether he intended to carry out the plan.
“If it is just rhetoric, it’s still dangerous because it’s bringing the idea of annexing the West Bank into the political mainstream and increasing the possibility that right-wing parties will make this a condition to form a coalition,” he told The Times of Israel. “It’s legitimizing the idea of annexation in the political discourse.”
Indeed, The Times of Israel first reported on March 27 — before Netanyahu had spoken publicly about his plans for sovereignty of the settlements — that the prime minister was set to link settlement annexation to support for his battle against prosecution when negotiating terms with potential coalition partners if he won reelection.
Reports since the vote, with tentative coalition negotiations set to get underway, have suggested right-wing parties would agree to back legislation that would prohibit indicting a sitting prime minister in exchange for Netanyahu moving forward on annexation. Bezalel Smotrich, of the United Right-Wing Parties, has said he would advance legislation to ensure Netanyahu cannot be put on trial while in office.
Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, defended Netanyahu’s annexation proposal.
“Every time a two-state solution is spoken about, they always say the major settlement blocs would be part of Israel under any settlement,” he told The Times of Israel. “So why should this be so controversial?”
Diament said that Orthodox Jews, who make up roughly 10 percent of American Jewry, according to the Pew Research Center, would back the Israeli premier’s plan: “From the Orthodox community perspective — the religious Zionist perspective — communities in the West Bank are, from our point of view, very much part of Israel. People in the Orthodox Jewish community have close friends and relatives living there. I think we would be largely supportive of those communities being under the governance of Israeli law.”
Halperin, however, had a different take. “Even if we are talking about partial annexation, it would be a very slippery slope toward a one-state reality,” he said. “That would be a major crisis between Israel and diaspora Jews. And it would be the seed of a major crisis in Washington.”
Already, some of Israel’s fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill have warned that annexation would lead to a political disaster for the pro-Israel cause.
On Friday, four Jewish Democrats with close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., Ted Deutch, D-Fla. and Brad Schneider, D-Ill. — put out a joint statement warning against extending Israeli law to all Jewish settlements.
“Two states for two peoples, negotiated directly by the two sides, with mutually agreed upon land swaps, is the best option to achieve a Jewish, democratic, secure Israel living side-by-side with a democratic, de-militarized Palestinian state,” the lawmakers said.
There is also a concern about what such a decision would mean for young Jewish Americans, who are overwhelmingly liberal and have been drifting from Israel over the last several years, according to multiple polls.
Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, the new head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said she empathized with young Jews who felt that liberal Zionism would die once Israel unilaterally annexed even part of the West Bank, but that, over time, she has became more deferential to the views of Israelis.
“When I was their age, it was a Shamir government and the First Intifada. I’m not sure that I felt that differently than they do now,” Kamin explained to The Times of Israel. “At my much older age now, after living through the Second Intifada and the withdrawal from Gaza, I understand what they’re saying, because I felt that way in my 20s, despairing about things that I couldn’t stand about the Israeli government. But now, I’m more sympathetic to the Israelis’ concerns about Israel.”
Overall, she thinks the younger generation will come to appreciate Israeli fears about relinquishing territory in the Middle East, where vacuums are often filled by nefarious forces. “I still think that the majority of American Jews will stand by Israel,” she said.
Jacobs painted a more dire picture. Liberal Jews have already felt disaffected by Netanyahu’s Israel over the last several years, not only because of his stance on the Palestinian issue, but because of his reneging on an agreement to expand a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall.
Moreover, the rabbinate still exerts full administrative jurisdiction over Jewish life in the state, including on personal issues like marriage, burials and conversions to Judaism. The outsize role that ultra-Orthodox parties, like Shas and United Torah Judaism, are likely to have in Netanyahu’s next government will make it impossible to “make any progress on religious freedom and pluralism.”
Were Netanyahu to annex the settlements, it would make the current crisis in Israel-diaspora relations even worse, said Jacobs.
Underlining concern over the issue, nine Jewish groups, including five associated with the Reform and Conservative movements, sent an unprecedented letter to Trump asking him to preserve the two-state solution in the face of Netanyahu’s settlement-sovereignty talk.
Released on Friday morning, the letter constituted a highly unusual plea by major Jewish groups to a US president to rein in an Israeli prime minister.
“We believe that [annexation] will lead to greater conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, severely undermine, if not entirely eradicate, the successful security coordination between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and galvanize efforts such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that are intended to isolate and delegitimize Israel,” the letter warned. “It will create intense divisions in the United States and make unwavering support for Israel and its security far more difficult to maintain.”
The signatories included the Union for Reform Judaism; the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, its Rabbinical Assembly; the Anti-Defamation League, the lead Jewish civil rights advocacy group; Ameinu, a liberal Zionist group; the National Council of Jewish Women; and the Israel Policy Forum. All but IPF are members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“What we know about non-Orthodox Jews here in North America is that they are decidedly liberal,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel. “The Netanyahu government will be even more illiberal. We’re going to have a divide between liberal and illiberal.”