Israeli Elections, Biden’s Visit, And How We Plan for the Day After

7 July 2022

I’ve just left Tel Aviv after the conclusion of NIF’s first in-person board meeting in almost three years. Sitting face to face with my beloved colleagues, discussing the very real issues that Israel faces today and our strategies to address them felt incredibly good.

From ensuring the freedom of protest to fighting religious extremism and advancing equity in land, planning and housing, NIF — as always — is playing the long game.

It is that long game that we need to focus on now, as Israel’s government has dissolved itself, and Israel is entering the fifth round of elections in five years. That’s got to be some kind of record (at least for Israel…).

We at NIF and at our action arm Shatil (which just celebrated its 40th anniversary with an event at which Israel’s president and first lady spoke — it was very moving) have learned a great deal from the last number of election cycles.

First, don’t make predictions at least until the party lists are set in stone in mid-September. Many parties — from Meretz to Labor to the Likud — are going to hold their primary elections in the coming weeks, and we don’t know what the outcomes will bring. Back in the spring of 2019, before the party lists were closed, some polls indicated that Likud could win the elections outright. But then, just before the deadline, the Blue & White party formed, and the whole map changed. Political prognostication at this point simply isn’t reliable.

Second, while the current “transition government” headed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid is limited, it can act. Just this week, it put together the requisite “Agreements Committee,” headed jointly by representatives of both the coalition and the opposition, to approve non-controversial legislation. NIF activists and organizations are not pausing their work just because they are now facing a weak “transition” government.

Indeed, just before the government dissolved, MK Gilad Kariv, a friend of NIF and a Reform Rabbi, managed to get an important bill passed. This bill prohibits political parties from using fake accounts and automated bots to spread party propaganda, and also requires them to disclose the fact that they are paying for the ads they run on Facebook within the ad itself. The hope is that this will prevent some of the fake news and race baiting that we saw the last few elections (especially from the Likud). We should all be proud that NIF grantees FakeReporter and Mehazkim, were the ones who developed and advocated for this bill.

Finally, we have to think proactively about what will be when the next Israeli government does form (whenever that turns out to be). Our Center for Policy Change at Shatil is working with civil society organizations to help them identify which civil servants they should engage now so that when the 2023-2023 budget is passed, the things they want and need will be in it.

As usual at NIF, we are always thinking about what happens the day after.

This is not to say that we’re ignoring the news of the day. Far from it. As always, we are focusing on what is happening now. President Biden is visiting the region soon and will be facing significant challenges. There are ongoing demolitions in the Masafer Yatta area of the South Hebron Hills (also known as Firing Zone 918), and live-fire military drills in that area despite the continued presence of the Palestinian civilian population. A coalition of pro-settler organizations is teaming up for a campaign aimed at embarrassing Biden by building ten illegal settlement outposts that will be very difficult for the army to dismantle without a fight. And, of course, there is the investigation into Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, which according to some of the most respectable news outlets in the world, as well as the US State Department, appears to have been the result of IDF fire, though the State Department noted that there was “no reason to believe that this was intentional.”

The message President Biden sends to the Israeli people can and should be plain and simple. It should reflect the fact that the United States — as well as most American Jews — disapproves of the Israeli government’s settlement policies, viewing them as an obstacle to peace and contrary to international law.

I wrote an op-ed in Haaretz not too long ago outlining the speech I thought the President ought to give to Israelis. Here’s what I think he should say:

You, the Israeli people, have got a choice to make. You can either choose to be a part of the community of democratic nations, with all the privilege and protection that that brings, or you can choose to keep your settlement enterprise on the West Bank. It’s time to decide which one is more important to you. The settlement enterprise isn’t the only obstacle to peace, but it’s one you can do something about right now…. We have a saying over here: friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And that’s what Israel’s settlement policy feels like: political drunk driving. And you’re heading for a cliff.

That’s it, that’s the message. For the past 55 years, the Israeli military has occupied the West Bank, leaving the fates and futures of millions of Palestinians under Israeli military control. At the same time, the Israeli government has built new towns and settled over 400,000 Jewish Israeli citizens in that same territory, while in East Jerusalem another 200,000-plus Jewish Israelis live in new neighborhoods built since 1967.

Today, Israel is protected by the might of the United States of America. The US helps ensure Israel’s safety and defend it in the international community. President Biden should be clear that he wants this to continue, and to see Israelis thrive in a prosperous democracy, at peace with the Palestinians, accepted by their neighbors, and respected by the world. But he should also be clear that those in power now in the U.S. cannot guarantee that this will continue if successive Israeli governments continue to choose the settlement enterprise over democracy.

Yair Lapid, who will be holding the reigns during this transition government, gave his maiden speech as Prime Minister last week. In it, he said that “Israel extends its hand to all the nations of the Middle East, including the Palestinians” and gave his blessing to future peace deals. It was the first time that a Prime Minister of Israel has said something like this publicly since Netanyahu did so in 2009 at Bar Ilan University (many, including me, questioned Netanyahu’s sincerity at that time; his subsequent statements and actions served to validate our skepticism).

Lapid’s comments last week did not amount to an earth-shattering moment, or a return to sincere negotiations toward a two-state solution. But they were, at least, a step in the right direction. Let us hope President Biden takes the opportunity of his visit to push Israel further along that path.