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Jewish-American activists renew pressure on Israel in wake of Netanyahu election win

Activists say Israeli policies towards Palestinians will only change as a result of outside pressure
Jewish-American protesters rally outside Birthright Israel offices in New York on 5 April [IfNotNow/Gili Getz]
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New York City

The re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu for a fifth term as Israel's prime minister has been met with anger by Jewish-American activists, who say they must strengthen their efforts to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses.

That's because the vote made it clear that political change is not going to come from inside Israel, said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a US-based advocacy group that opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

"After this election, I think there is even more responsibility to continue our pressure from the outside, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, because it is clear it is not going to come from the inside," she told Middle East Eye.

The result is "a true indicator" of how far Israeli politics has shifted, Vilkomerson said.

'After this election, I think there is even more responsibility to continue our pressure from the outside … because it is clear it is not going to come from the inside'

-Rebecca Vilkomerson, Jewish Voice for Peace

"Netanyahu is a master campaigner and has used the tools of fear very effectively," she said, as reports showed that the Likud Party leader looked most likely to be able to form a coalition to retain his hold on the premier's office.

The Likud party secured the same number of seats as the Blue and White party, led by Netanyahu's main challenger, ex-Israeli army chief Benny Gantz.

But Gantz conceded defeat, leaving the way open for Netanyahu to form what is expected to be an extreme, right-wing coalition.

Netanyahu described the elections result as an "almost inconceivable achievement".

"I was very moved that the nation of Israel once again entrusted me for the fifth time, and with even greater trust," he said.

Ending US support for Israel

US President Donald Trump has been a staunch supporter of Netanyahu, with analysts saying several recent policy changes in Washington - including US recognition of Israel's hold on the Syrian Golan Heights - were designed to provide a boost to the Israeli leader.

Trump also was among the first world leaders to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory, and he is expected to use the Israeli premier's win as a campaign tool of his own when he runs again in the 2020 US presidential elections.

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The Israeli election results were viewed much more unfavourably by outspoken Jewish-American activists, however, who are calling for the US to rethink its relationship with Israel.

Groups like JVP and IfNotNow, a youth-led initiative that campaigns for the end of American support for the Israeli occupation, say their membership numbers are growing steadily across the country.

Many Jewish-American activists have become increasingly boisterous in their criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, as well as the strong, personal ties between Netanyahu and Trump.

Ariel Gold, national co-director of CODEPINK, a feminist anti-war organisation, said the Israeli election result "comes off the back of one of the most vile and racist election campaigns possible".

"This is a continuation of the status quo, which is occupation, apartheid, annexation and the continued violation of Palestinian rights. It's about time we recognise that any hope for the two-state solution is dead and Israel is in no way a democracy," Gold told MEE.

"I am not surprised with the result, but I am still outraged."

'As long as American Jews are silent, the occupation cannot end'

- Yonah Lieberman, IfNotNow

Still, the result was "disappointing, but not surprising," said Yonah Lieberman, a founding member of IfNotNow.

Lieberman told MEE the outcome "illustrated the need for building stronger alliances to end the occupation".

"I think that [the] Jewish future depends on Palestinian freedom. And I think Israelis have been told that their safety depends on the oppression of another people.

"I think it's going to be a real test for many Jewish-American leaders and how they interact with Netanyahu going forward."

New campaign

Late on Wednesday, IfNotNow launched a new campaign, dubbed #NewJewishFuture, which calls upon young Jewish-Americans to boycott Birthright Israel "until it exposes and opposes the injustices of Israel's Occupation".

Birthright Israel is a group that offers free trips to Israel to Jewish youth around the world, in the aim of helping them connect with Israel and strengthen their Jewish identity.

The #NewJewishFuture initiative is the latest instalment of a campaign IfNotNow started in 2018, urging Birthright to tell participants the truth about the occupation. 

Lieberman said the campaign aims to gather 10,000 pledges by the end of the summer.

Birthright IfNotNow
At least a dozen American Jews have walked off Birthright tours over the past year in protest over the 'disinformation' and 'erasure' of Palestinians [Gili Getz/IfNotNow]

"We know that one of the primary funders of this [Birthright Israel] programme is the Israeli government and frankly, there is never going to be a trip that this government will pay for, that will criticise the occupation. So we want people to opt out," Lieberman said.

"The same people who are leading Israel's dramatic shift to the right are the same people who fund Birthright … and as long as American Jews are silent, the occupation cannot end."

A 'limited democracy'

While some American Jews are becoming more vocal in their opposition to the Israeli occupation and rights abuses, Vilkomerson said that recent polls showed young Jewish-Israelis are moving in the opposite direction.

Last year, the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI) reported that around 64 percent of Israeli Jews between the ages of 18-34 consider themselves to be right-wing, compared to 47 percent of those 35 and older.

Another IDI poll, conducted last week ahead of the Israeli elections, found that Jewish-Israelis aged 18-24 preferred Netanyahu over Gantz by a wide margin, 65 percent to 17 percent, The Times of Israel reported.

But Vilkomerson said it's important to note that Israel is fundamentally "a limited form of democracy" - with millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied territories unable to vote.

Whatever the election results would have been, they wouldn't have changed the status quo, she said.

"Even the Gantz-led bloc was centre-right at best. And it certainly wasn't putting forward any commitments to ending the occupation or ending any forms of oppression of Palestinians. It wouldn't have changed anything had he won."