By Jon Gargis

Less than a week after leading Likud to victory in the Israeli election, Benjamin Netanyahu passed the support threshold he needed March 23 to take on the job of forming a governing coalition for his fourth term as prime minister.

A day earlier, Netanyahu’s “unusual election practices” during the campaign drew the attention of Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew

Photo by Jon Gargis Steven M. Cohen, just back from voting in the Israeli election, takes a question during a brunch discussion of Israel’s postelection future March 22. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, served as Congregation Etz Chaim’s scholar in residence in a program presented by the Ramie A. Tritt Family Foundation.

Photo by Jon Gargis
Steven M. Cohen, just back from voting in the Israeli election, takes a question during a brunch discussion of Israel’s postelection future March 22. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, served as Congregation Etz Chaim’s scholar in residence in a program presented by the Ramie A. Tritt Family Foundation.

Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, during his discussion of Israel’s postelection future over brunch at Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb.

One of the practices Cohen addressed was the prime minister’s shifting stance on a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu for years had said he was committed to pursuing a two-state solution, but in the final days of the campaign “Bibi let out the announcement of ‘There will never be a Palestinian state while I’m prime minister,’ and that was one payment to his constituency,” Cohen said in his initial remarks.

He later said that a rejection of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would add to the dangers to the Jewish state, such as increased isolation, military insecurity, and mobilization of Palestinians and their supporters against Israelis.

“The security people believe that we have to pursue a two-state solution,” Cohen said, even though they’re not sure such a solution is best for Israel’s security. “Is a two-state solution possible? I sure as hell don’t know. But that’s different from ‘Should we pursue a two-state solution with integrity and honesty and sincerity?’ That we really should look like we want to have.

“We want to have a Palestinian state if only we can be sure it doesn’t attack and kill us. That’s what we want. We should look like we want that.”

Cohen said Israel should not have a government leader saying that all of the land conquered in 1967 should be Israel’s. “We don’t want that. It’s bad for Israel, it’s bad for our relationship, and words like that, the president of the United States wouldn’t even be able to support us. That really is dangerous for Israel, so the security people in Israel really think Bibi and his policy is simply dangerous. I can’t see why we don’t support a two-state solution. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

Netanyahu did reverse himself and proclaim his support for a two-state solution, but President Barack Obama has said the United States will have to reassess its relationship with Israel because of the prime minister’s campaign comments.

Cohen also addressed the prime minister’s “unusual election practice” that saw his campaign posting on Facebook and issuing robocalls to warn that “the Arabs are coming to the polls in droves” and accusing Europeans and leftists of funding the opposition Zionist Union to drive up the Arab and Tel Aviv votes.

“Two Jewish guys paid for that get-out-the-vote drive,” Cohen said, referring to Slimfast founder S. Daniel Abraham and KIND Healthy Snacks’ Daniel Lubetzky. “We all know who they were, and somehow Bibi thought it was inappropriate to mention these two Jewish entrepreneurs.”

Cohen said Netanyahu and his supporters were propelled in the election by a “brilliant political move” in which the prime minister in news show appearances and private meetings with settlers said that failing to support him in the polls would lead to Likud finishing second to the Zionist Union. That result would have given Isaac Herzog the first chance to form the next government.

Although the final pre-election polls predicted a Zionist Union victory and exit polls suggested Likud and the Zionist Union would be even at 28 seats each, Likud captured 30 of 120 Knesset seats. The Zionist Union, combining the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, was second with 24 seats.

Ultimately, Cohen said, little changed as a result of the election.

“The blocs did not change from the last election,” Cohen said, although new unity among the Arab parties led to them gaining seats.

Arabs “have as many differences among them as we do, but they have a smaller population, and for them to get seats from any one of these parties was very, very difficult,” the professor told his audience of about 75 people. “Nevertheless, they did something that Jews don’t do very often: They got together and they united.”

As a result, three Arab parties splitting 11 seats in the current Knesset will be one party with 13 seats in the new Knesset.

An Israeli citizen, Cohen said he has been a Zionist since the 1960s and made his first trip to Israel in 1970. His weekend appearance as Etz Chaim’s scholar in residence came after he returned from Israel to cast his ballot in the national election.

“I actually voted. I flew over for two days to cast my ballot. When life circumstances pulled me out of Israel as a permanent resident, I made a personal vow that, as long as I could, I was going to vote every election,” he said. “It’s been a little bit of an expensive vow.”

He urged the audience at the Conservative synagogue to try to visit Israel during the next election, which he said will probably be in two years. “It’s a wonderful season to be in Israel, to meet people on the streets, meet people in hotels or wherever, and talk about the elections.”

The Sunday brunch discussion was the final event of Cohen’s stint as Etz Chaim’s scholar-in-residence. The weekend, presented by the synagogue and the Ramie A. Tritt Family Foundation, also focused on topics such as generational shifts in Jewish identity and the effort to ensure a Jewish future.

Rabbi Paul Kerbel sent brunch attendees home with a concluding message tied to the political nature of Sunday’s topic and the issues addressed earlier in the weekend.

“Do everything you can, with whatever organization you want, to support Israel,” said Rabbi Kerbel, who recently returned from his own trip there. “Stand up, vote, speak to our congressmen, write to the president, all of those things, now.”