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Canadians react as Israel calls early election

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL photo)

Israel’s ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, announced on Dec. 24 that it was breaking up and the Knesset was being dissolved. That means the country will be holding elections in April, eight months earlier than required by law.

Jewish-Canadian observers of the election will be tuned into a few issues, especially on matters of security, religious pluralism and the relationship with the Palestinians, but those issues might not be the ones that ultimately define the makeup of the ruling coalition.

Because of Israel’s system of proportional representation, no party has ever won a majority. Instead, the party with a plurality of elected representatives forms a ruling coalition with other parties, to achieve a majority of 61 or more seats out of 120 in the Knesset. Therefore, the issues that end up defining who will lead the country may be very different than those that Diaspora Jews tend to focus on.

“The campaign that many of us will be following will hardly make any mention of some of the key issues,” said Renan Levine, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He said that getting to 61 seats requires concessions, “often to religious parties about their own religious schools, about exemptions from the Israeli army draft and things like this.” In other words, not the issues that are typically on the minds of most Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

There is one major issue that many will be focusing on that could also greatly affect the election results: the corruption allegations brought against Netanyahu. Israeli police have recommended that the prime minister be indicted on three separate incidents of corruption last year. The most recent case, in which Netanyahu allegedly made a deal with a newspaper for more favourable coverage in exchange for regulatory benefits, is arguably the most serious of the three.

According to Levine, the cloud hanging over Netanyahu due to these potential indictments has led to a chaotic political landscape in Israel leading up to the election. The attorney general, who was appointed by Netayahu, has to decide whether to proceed with the indictments and, if he chooses to do so, whether to indict before or after the election. Netanyahu has already said he will continue to serve as prime minister, even if he is indicted, although he will be forced to resign if he’s found guilty.

Levine said that there are a number of centrist “aspiring prime ministerial candidates trying to assert themselves,” if the threat of indictments, or actual indictments, harm Netanyahu’s electoral chances. So far, though, that hasn’t happened – Netanyahu is still popular in Israel and the leading candidate in the most recent polls.

READ: STEINBERG: WILL ANYONE CHALLENGE NETANYAHU?

Morton Weinfeld, a professor of sociology at McGill and the university’s director of Canadian ethnic studies, said that if Netanyahu is re-elected, it could lead to some younger and non-Orthodox North American Jews “distancing” themselves from the Jewish state.

“Any such distancing is likely caused by both natural processes of assimilation and dislike for Israeli policies, domestic and foreign. A perceived continuing bromance between Bibi and Trump would not help,” he wrote in an email to The CJN.

Weinfeld also said it’s possible that certain electoral outcomes in Israel could lead to anti-Israel sentiment in Canada.

“A right-wing government, and related policies, would likely exacerbate anti-Israel sentiments in Canadian academia and the media, including enhanced support for BDS. Some might legitimately wonder if this is identical to anti-Semitism, but in my view, there is a definite link,” he said.

Karen Mock – the president of JSpace Canada, which bills itself as a Jewish, progressive, pro-Israel, pro-peace organization – is also aware that the upcoming election could mean increased unwanted attention for Jewish communities in Canada.

“Sadly, the purveyors of hatred against Jews (and Israel) will use any excuse to demonstrate their anti-Semitism,” she wrote in an email. “We hope the media will be responsible in their reporting on the Israeli elections and not inadvertently give them more fodder by headlining only the most negative or volatile comments or proposals made by candidates.”

Mock didn’t endorse any specific candidates or parties on behalf of JSpace, but said that her organization generally supports politicians whose goal is to bring about “progressive change in Israel.”

Some issues that JSpace is focusing on include ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories while still ensuring its security, increased support for African refugees in Israel and addressing inequality between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

“Arabs make up 13 per cent of all families in Israel, but 38 per cent of the country’s poorest families. We worry that neither the main Israeli parties nor the Arab parties are addressing this disparity,” Mock said.

She also said that JSpace is working on building connections between progressive Zionists in the Diaspora and Israel. She called Netanyahu “divisive,” but credited the Israeli consuls general in Canada for their success in building support for Israel across a spectrum of groups in Canada. “It gives us hope that the divisions are more apparent than real and encourages us to focus on Israel’s future and working with all the Zionist organizations in Canada,” she said.

In terms of issues that especially affect Canadian Jews, The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is monitoring how Israel manages the Western Wall and whether it recognizes conversions outside the purview of the Chief Rabbinate, says Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of CIJA. CIJA also believes Canada should continue to stand with Israel in international forums such as the United Nations. “The misuse of these institutions not only unfairly targets Israelis but also undermines peace and distracts attention from the world’s most pressing challenges,” Koffler Fogel in an emailed statement.

CIJA will also monitor Israeli security issues, like Iran’s presence in Syria, Hezbollah tunnels in the north and flareups in Gaza and the West Bank. “Insofar as the Jewish state serves as a homeland for all Jews, the vital security issues as well as the various visions of conflict resolution and Israel’s place in the region will be of great concern to our community,” said Koffler Fogel.

Update, Jan. 9: The final two paragraphs featuring CIJA’s comments were added