Israelis in St. Louis largely wary of Netanyahu’s re-election

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

If the comments of Israelis living in the St. Louis area are on the mark, little to nothing will change in Israel as a result of the March 17 national election. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud bloc, could win a fourth term as prime minister if polls in Israel are predictive. Netanyahu dissolved the coalition government late last year and called an early parliamentary election. 

While their comments span a broad spectrum, these Israelis living here agree that Netanyahu’s Likud is likely to win enough votes in the 120-seat Knesset to form the next government.

Few, however, are happy about that.

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One of the strongest objections to Netanyahu and his way of governing Israel came from Yael Shomroni, a ceramic artist who lives in Webster Groves.

She was born in Tel Aviv to a father who was in the Mossad and a mother who was secretary to Israel’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, as well as to Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Lavon when they were defense ministers. She’s lived in the United States more than 20 years.

Shomroni calls the Likud-led government “extreme, right wing and racist that is a democracy for Jews only.” She compared it to the tea party in the United States.

Shomroni, 54, charges that Netanyahu is motivated by “megalomania and paranoia” and said his political policies appeal to the less-educated among Israelis, the more right wing, the more religious and the more racist. She also lamented the decline in strength and influence of the Israeli left in recent years.

“A lot of the left has left,” she said. “It wasn’t the economy. It was political. Now a lot of us are in touch with each other through social media. Many of them are living in Berlin now.”

A controversial issue in the run-up to the election is Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress on March 3. Some Israelis here agree that Netanyahu is correct to speak about a possible nuclear threat from Iran, even though that gesture is considered in some quarters to be a breach of traditional protocol because he was not invited by President Barack Obama.

Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington because it is against protocol to meet with a foreign leader in the runup to that leader’s election. 

And several ranking Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden and the body’s senior Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, have said they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech.

Personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been cool to frosty for several years, but Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the Republican-controlled Congress seems to be widening the split between the two men.

“I think Netanyahu is right to come to the Congress and warn of Iran,” said Galit Lev-Harir, 49, who has lived in the St. Louis area for 16 years. “Iran poses a threat to Israel. The agreement Obama proposes will not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Should Iran develop a nuclear weapon in spite of an international agreement designed to stop it from doing so while lifting sanctions that have crippled its economy, Lev-Harir predicted that other Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will seek to develop nuclear weapons, too.

“It will increase volatility, and it will increase instability,” she said.

Lev-Harir said Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is not “a publicity stunt.”

“It has nothing to do with his election,” she said.

There is little these Israelis can do regarding the election, however, because they are living here and not in Israel. As several pointed out, Israelis living abroad are not allowed to vote absentee. 

Some would like to see a stronger effort to make a durable peace with the Palestinians, while others are deeply concerned that economic disparity is widening, creating an even larger gap between wealthy Israelis and those who are low income and with few educational opportunities.

But, said several people who were interviewed, those are the very Israelis who often support Netanyahu and Likud. 

Some, like Elie Harir, husband of Galit Lev-Harir, argue that the election is a great “waste of time and money,” in part because public funds are used to pay for parties’ political advertising. 

“I don’t see anything changing,” said Harir, who was reared near Akko, near Haifa in northern Israel. “Netanyahu likes to keep his chair warm. But there is no leadership. I am tired of Netanyahu, but who can replace him?”

He added that the two most likely politicians, Yitzhak Herzog, head of the Labor Party and official leader of the Knesset opposition, and Tzipi Livni, head of Hatuah and minister of justice in Netanyahu’s government in 2013 and 2014, are not likely together to win a plurality.

Herzog and Livni are campaigning together in an effort to unite their two parties for this election under what they call the Zionist Camp.

Few Israelis interviewed like or admire the prime minister and they warn that the Israeli economy has become more troublesome for many Israelis living there. Herzog has blamed Netanyahu for the poor relations between the prime minister’s office and the White House.

When asked the key issues in this election, Eli Sadon, 62, who grew up in Jerusalem and lives in Creve Coeur, named two: security and social issues. 

He sees Iran as the key threat and is less concerned about the Palestinians and their quest for statehood. 

As far as social issues, though, Sadon, like others interviewed, point to a growing gap between wealthy Israelis and those who have much less. 

“The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer,” he said.

Sadon said he favors a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine having their own  countries.

But, he added, “Based on the past 30 years, it doesn’t seem like the Palestinians want to have their own state. If they wanted their own state, they could have had it [at Camp David II and later negotiations].”

Where these Israelis do seem to agree is on the threat posed by Iran, if it were to gain nuclear weapons. Some think Netanyahu may be overplaying the issue to help his election chances next month, but they do seem to concur on the existential threat a nuclear-armed Iran would be not only to Israel, which reportedly has nuclear weapons of its own, but also to the general stability of the region.

Ron Golan, who lives in Chesterfield and works for Enterprise Rent-a-Car, said he believes another victory by Netanyahu and Likud would be “very bad for Israel.”

“Labor is a lot more in tune with Israel’s needs today,” he said. “And Labor would be better for any peace efforts with the Palestinians.”

For Golan, who grew up on a kibbutz near Gaza, the major parties agree on fundamental security issues. They differ, though, on relations with the Palestinians, the ultimate disposition of the West Bank and settlements there, and the economic future of the country.

“Netanyahu is very stubborn,” Golan said. “Sometimes he stands up to Obama, but he doesn’t cooperate enough. He should be more in tune with [U.S. policy]. He should play the game.”

However, Golan added, the prime minister has qualities that may make him electable again: He’s charismatic. Most American Jews love him. And he’s well spoken and persuasive as a public speaker. 

Which may be why his address to Congress in less than two weeks could strengthen his hold on Israeli electoral politics.