Dafna Shimshi was surprised with last week’s Israeli election results, which catapulted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an expected fourth term.
“I think a lot of people were surprised,” said the Upper St. Clair resident, who moved to the United States from Ramat Hasharon outside of Tel Aviv seven years ago.
When Netanyahu’s rightist Likud party emerged victorious in the national elections last Tuesday, many were stunned that he defeated a serious challenge from an alliance of center-left parties that enjoyed the backing of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations.
But while Shimshi said she supports the Israeli right, she is not sure that Netanyahu was the right choice this time around as prime minister.
“It would have been good to have someone new. I know Bibi Netanyahu is very good — he’s smart and very tough, and has good English,” she said, using the prime minister’s nickname. “But I think for the young people, they don’t want any more wars. A lot of people in Israel think he takes them into bad situations.
“I have a friend over there with three boys, and she says, ‘Enough,’” added Shimshi. “And life there is very expensive.”
Though he won handily, Netanyahu’s controversial comments on election day — that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch and that the Israeli right was being threatened by Arab-Israelis voting “in droves” — created a backlash ranging from the White House to some local community leaders in Pittsburgh.
Despite Netanyahu’s later insistence that he is, in fact, open to a two-state solution under specific conditions, Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh, said she doubts his sincerity.
“It’s hard to know when someone goes back and forth so drastically as to whether he’s serious,” she said. “I don’t personally believe him.”
Bernstein was disappointed with his reelection, she said.
“He’s been playing with the lives of millions of Palestinians with no self-determination and no right to vote,” Bernstein opined. “And he has done a lot to destroy the relationship between the United States and Israel. He hasn’t shown a commitment to maintaining a strong relationship with the United States. That puts any hope to cooperate with the United States on a two-state solution into question.”
But it is the Israelis’ basic need for security that motivated Netanyahu to make those comments just prior to the election, posited Jeff Pollock, incoming president of the Pittsburgh District of the Zionist Organization of America. And it was those comments — and that reality — that motivated a large number of citizens to re-elect the prime minister despite economic challenges in the country, he said.
“It’s similar to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Pollock explained. “Netanyahu realized and knew that the country prioritizes safety over quality of life. They want to be safe from bombs and will worry about economics later. It’s unfortunate that he had to go there, but it’s a fact of life.”
The prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is no worse with Netanyahu at the helm than it would have been had the election gone another way, Pollock postulated.
“I believe that if there were ever a real chance for peace, there would have to be some genuine leadership on the other side,” he said. “If there were a real chance for peace, any Israeli leader, including Netanyahu, would jump at the chance.”
Handing over land to the Palestinians has not been effective in the past at achieving peace, Pollock noted, pointing to the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which gave way to 10 years of rocket fire from Hamas and the erection of a terrorist tunnel system that would have led to mass kidnappings and murder had it not been dismantled last summer during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.
“The Diaspora should not be telling Israel how to run its country because we’re not on the front line,” he said. “Israel’s election of Netanyahu is a recognition that they tried to be reasonable and offer compromises, and it was taken advantage of. Israel realizes it has to have a leader who can be tough, because bending over backwards to make concessions in the hope that they will be rewarded has proven not to be realistic.”
The democratic election process in Israel worked the way it is supposed to work, according to David Ainsman, who is president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of AIPAC, but spoke to The Chronicle in his capacity as an individual.
“It’s the Israelis’ right and obligation to select their own leadership,” Ainsman said. “They are the ones that face dangers on a daily basis. They are the ones that have to live with their economy. And they are the ones that have to live with Israel’s relationship with the other nations of the world.”
Ainsman said he does not believe that the reelection of Netanyahu necessarily lessens the prospect for peace.
“I’m a major supporter of the two-state solution,” he said. “I believe that both Jews and Palestinians are entitled to their own states. I do not believe those two peoples were close to effectuating that goal. Whether the election takes them further apart, leaves them where they were, or brings them closer together are beyond my ability to foresee.”
Still, Ainsman was uncomfortable with some of the prime minister’s pre-election rhetoric.
“During the course of the campaign,” he said, “several statements were made that are significantly inconsistent with my personal values.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.