Last night’s election results in Israel are deeply troubling for all who care about Israel and about liberal democracy globally — for those whose core values of justice, equality and freedom are fundamentally at odds with the parties and leaders who stand on the cusp of victory.
Votes are still being counted, but all signs point to Benjamin Netanyahu — currently on trial for corruption — forming the next government with the support of one of the most extreme, anti-democratic, far-right political parties ever to enter the Israeli Knesset: Itamar Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party.
Ben-Gvir and his fellow ultranationalist Bezalel Smotrich raise the specter of a government willing to strip Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens of their rights, weaken the independence of the Supreme Court, short-circuit Netanyahu’s legal charges and ratchet up intercommunal tensions within Israel and violations of Palestinian human rights in the Occupied Territory.
As Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote last night, “that over 10 percent of Israelis voted for an openly anti-Arab party with proudly homophobic representatives is a frightening moment for Israel’s limited and fragile democracy.”
The final vote tallies and the whims of Israeli parliamentarians may yet thwart Netanyahu’s plans, but here is what we do know:
An ultra-right-wing Netanyahu government will force a moment of reckoning for the US-Israel relationship, and for all Americans who care about a just, equal and democratic future for all those living in Israel and Palestine.
We Americans didn’t have a vote in yesterday’s election, and we respect the outcome even as we declare our staunch opposition to those who won.
As Americans, our role is to ask what we can and now must do.
What will be the policy of our government if Israel’s government moves to illegally annex territory in the West Bank, cementing permanent occupation without rights for millions of Palestinians?
Who will be the primary political voice of our community? Will it be those, like us, who stand for justice, democracy and diplomacy? Or those, like AIPAC, who demand not just support for the State of Israel, but uncritical enabling of Israel’s government no matter what its actions, while backing those who undermine our democracy here at home?
And what will America’s Jewish communal leadership do? Will they stand up loudly and clearly to racists and autocrats who threaten Israeli democracy? Or will they focus their criticism on those of us who speak up in dissent?
J Street has long warned that a relationship based on an ‘Israel right or wrong’ approach that tolerates without meaningful objection settlements, demolitions, discrimination and endless occupation serves no one’s interests — not this country’s, not the Jewish people’s and not the State of Israel’s.
Under the looming ultra-right Israeli government that may take shape, that business-as-usual approach will be strained to untenable limits.
We will be forced to reckon with the prospect of de jure annexation and ever more blatant discrimination and incitement. Forced to reckon with leaders who cast off any pretense of caring about human rights, equality or peace. And I fear we will also be forced to reckon with the prospect of massive volatility in the West Bank that could well lead to fracturing and violence within Israeli society itself.
This is a moment of truth and of choice.
American Jews — and the United States itself — must align our policies with our values. The Biden administration and Congress need to be pressed to do more than give lip service to a commitment to equal measures of peace, justice and self-determination for both peoples. They must be pressed to take action.
In order to make our voice heard and win the important debates that lie ahead, those of us who feel passionately about democracy, Israel and our core Jewish values must stand tall, grow our ranks and build our power as a movement.
If history is any guide, we can expect many in our community will find ways to avoid speaking out.
Some will express doubts that the new government will do the things its members have committed to do. Some will excuse the inexcusable. Others in our community may give up hope altogether for Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.
I cannot speak for those groups, but I can speak for J Street.
Whatever the election’s final outcome, we will press the United States to be committed as much to Israel’s democracy as we are to its security. We will argue that Israel should be not just a homeland for the Jewish people, but for Jewish values.
We will make the case that there is no contradiction — none — in supporting Israel’s secure, democratic future while loudly and unapologetically championing the rights of Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and of those who live under its authority without civil and political rights.
And we’ll fight back against groups in our community willing to sacrifice their commitment to democracy here at home and in Israel in order to promote lockstep support of whoever holds power in Israel.
Our loyalty is to our values, to Israel’s founding ideals and to a vision of a world rooted in equality and justice.
To us, being pro-Israel means standing firm when those values are threatened by extremist political forces.
The news from Israel today and in the following weeks may be dispiriting, but that only means our work is more important today than it was yesterday.
We cannot despair; we must recommit.
We founded J Street to take on this fight, and together we stand ready for this moment.