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Jewish World Review May 10, 1999 /24 Iyar 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Cheering From the Sidelines: American Jews are more than interested observers of Israel's election

(JWR) ---- (
ONCE UPON A TIME, the American Jewish love affair with Israel was not encumbered by politics. If you cared about Israel, chances are that affection wasn't qualified by dislike for a particular party or candidate.

That was a long time ago.

As Israel prepares to vote for a new prime minister and Knesset in less than two weeks, many American Jews are looking on anxiously from the sidelines.

Though American media coverage of the May 17 Israeli election is not quite as extensive as its all-out effort during the May 1996 vote when Benjamin Netanyahu upset Shimon Peres (the war in the Balkans has diverted much of the attention of the world press), it is still quite thorough.

Lots of American Jewish money has found its way into the campaigns of Israel's two leading candidates for prime minister. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Indeed, while Israeli candidates have increasingly imported American campaign consultants to tell them what to do, American Jews have imported Israel's own rabid partisanship, which has helped fragment American Jewish support for Israel.

Once it was hard to find an American Jew who understood that Israel's democracy actually provided a lively opposition to the mythic leaders of the long-ruling Labor party. While David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were running Israel, the average American Jew in the street had no idea who the leader of Israel's democratic opposition was.

If you had told them it was the man who had led the Irgun Tsvai Leumi during the struggle against the British in the 1940s, I'd bet most active Jews would probably have answered by saying that they thought that person had been killed. That's right. Almost certainly, more people had read the novel or saw the movie version of Leon Uris' Exodus (in which the fictional leader of the Irgun dies) than had ever heard of Menachem Begin prior to his election as prime minister.

Nowadays, most Americans - let alone American Jews - are well aware of the fact that Israel is divided between rival political factions that have been splitting approximately half of the vote in every election since 1977.

That was the year of Israel's democratic revolution, in which Menachem Begin and his nationalist Likud party finally swept Labor out of power after spending the first 29 years of Israel's existence in opposition. Even though the honorable behavior of Labor's Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in the face of defeat should be remembered with praise, Labor's tradition of delegitimizing their right-wing opponents as somehow unworthy of power lived on both in Israel and here.

The Labor party's view of itself as the only legitimate party of government and the proponents of the only rational policy - peace - has certainly had a powerful influence on the way many American Jews view Israeli politics.

Many Jewish leaders are fond of blaming Netanyahu and his lack of enthusiasm for the Oslo peace process for all that ails American Jewish life, including fundraising for Jewish organizations and the unwillingness of American Jews to travel to Israel.

Whether these criticisms are fair or not - I think not - is besides the point. Since most American Jews believe them to be true, they sometimes act as if Israel's current government is not worthy of the same level of support that its Labor predecessors received.

More to the point, the stridency of Israel's right wingers and their stiff-necked refusal to make nice with Yasser Arafat the way Peres did embarrasses a lot of American Jews. This attitude is especially prevalent among liberals who pride themselves on a universalist view of the world that considers the unashamed nationalism of the Likud distasteful, if not downright disgusting.

In turn, that attitude has liberated American politicians like President Clinton - who resent Netanyahu's unwillingness to go along with more concessions to the Palestinians - from a policy of neutrality in Israeli politics. Though more restrained than his all-out campaign for Peres in '96, Clinton's current "Anybody but Bibi" push should not be underestimated.

Of course, 22 years after Begin was first elected, the differences between Labor and Likud have narrowed considerably. Both have grown corrupt in power, and true ideologues are rare in the ranks of either party. But the Likudniks are still the black sheep of the world Jewish community. The language used by the press in routinely describing it speaks volumes.

On American television and in the our leading daily newspapers, Benjamin Netanyahu is routinely referred to as the "right-wing" prime minister and leader of the "right-wing" Likud. I don't recall Peres or Rabin ever being referred to as "left wing."

American media outlets have also routinely painted a lopsided view of Israeli politics, where the right is usually depicted as extremist and the left as moderates. That Netanyahu continues to get this treatment even after he signed agreements further implementing the Oslo process and carried out territorial withdrawals shows just how virulent the "Bibiphobia" in the world press can be.

At the heart of this problem is the Israeli press, which is openly partisan in a way that the American media is not. Like most American newspapers earlier in this century, Israeli media outlets are not shy about demonstrating partisan bias and rarely trouble to affect the pose of neutrality that is the American journalists' stock in trade.

When I asked Akiva Eldar, the widely respected American correspondent of Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper about this just before the 1996 Israeli election, he admitted it was true.

Sure, he said, the Israeli press is overwhelmingly pro-left. But, he added, "So what? Most Israelis don't believe the press anyway, so it is no advantage for Labor!"

Likud's string of victories in the past two decades show just how true that statement was.

But given the fact that American print and broadcast journalists' spin on Israeli politics is influenced more by what their Israeli colleagues are doing than their own ignorance and bias (which is by no means inconsiderable), this trend has had a powerful effect on American opinion.

Thus, even a man like Netanyahu, who was a regular on the ABC-news television show "Nightline" and speaks perfect Philadelphia- style American English, can be put down as an extremist and have it stick.

Thus, as Israelis go to the polls to decide the one issue that really seems to drive current Israeli politics - namely how much do you hate Bibi Netanyahu? - many American Jews will be watching and waiting to see if their least favorite candidate prevails against heavy odds the way he did in 1996.

If the polls are to be believed, this time they will like the results better. But if not, look for a lot of sad Jewish faces on May 18.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin