Dec 27, 2022 - World

Scoop: U.S. Jewish leaders warn Israeli officials over incoming right-wing government

Israeli right-wing Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir (R) chats with incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) on Nov. 22. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

Several U.S. Jewish leaders during a meeting with Israeli officials earlier this month warned that racist and extremist moves by the new Israeli government could seriously hamper support for Israel among Jews in the U.S., six sources who either attended the meeting at the Israeli embassy in Washington or were briefed on it told Axios.

Why it matters: The incoming Israeli government is expected to be the country's most right-wing ever. A senior Israeli official said the meeting at the embassy represented the anxiety the organized U.S. Jewish community has about the incoming Israeli government over its expected policies towards Jews in the diaspora and against democratic values.

  • The Dec. 7 meeting was attended by representatives of several mainstream U.S. Jewish organizations that are the backbone of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. They are all regular interlocutors of the Israeli embassy.

Driving the news: The representatives of the Jewish organizations were invited for a meeting with Shuli Davidovich, the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry bureau for the diaspora, who asked to hear their thoughts about the political situation in Israel, according to the sources, who requested anonymity to speak freely about what was discussed in the meeting.

  • The meeting took place against the backdrop of the negotiations between Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the radical right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties.
  • According to sources who attended the meeting, the atmosphere was very difficult and almost all of the attendees raised concerns about the policies of the incoming Israeli government.

One set of concerns was related to religious pluralism and possible changes to the Israeli "law of return" and the Jewish conversion law that could negatively influence the U.S. Jewish community.

  • The "law of return" sets the criteria for who has the right to immigrate to Israel. Currently, Jews and non-Jews who have at least one Jewish grandparent and their spouses are eligible for Israeli citizenship.
  • The majority of members in the incoming government want to change the law and make it harder for non-Jews to get citizenship. Such a move could affect millions of Jews around the world, including in the U.S.
  • Netanyahu said in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this month that he will not allow the laws to be changed, but the coalition deal he signed includes an agreement on forming a committee that will review them. "It's going to be a big debate, but I have pretty firm views. I doubt we will have any changes," Netanyahu told "Meet the Press."

Jewish leaders also raised concerns over Netanyahu’s radical right-wing coalition partners, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich — both of whom have expressed racist and Jewish supremacist views — and Avi Maoz, who has expressed anti-LGBTQ views, sources who attended the meeting said.

Behind the scenes: Participants of the meeting told Axios several of the Jewish representatives said that policies that are racist, antagonistic towards both reform and conservative Jews and harm LGBTQ+ rights could damage donations to Israel from the U.S. Jewish community. Such policies could also push younger Jews in the country to further distance themselves from Israel.

  • Some of the meeting's participants also warned of a scenario of demonstrations of U.S. Jews in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington to demonstrate against the new government or parts of it, according to four sources who attended the meeting or were briefed on it.
  • "During the meeting, people even said they could send hundreds of people in planes to Israel in order to demonstrate in Jerusalem," one source said.
  • The overall message of the meeting was that the new Israeli government’s expected policies could make the work of the U.S. Jewish organizations to garner support for Israel much harder, according to several of the participants of the meeting.
  • "We said we were there to warn them that it could be really bad and they should be aware of it," said one attendee.

The other side: The Israeli officials who attended the meeting were taken aback by what they heard and tried to reassure the representatives of the Jewish organizations, urging them to take a wait-and-see approach and stressing they will communicate their views to the incoming Israeli government, two sources who attended the meeting said.

  • Two Israeli Foreign Ministry officials told Axios that shortly after the meeting Davidovich briefed Israeli ambassador Mike Herzog and all the Israeli consul generals in the U.S. who were attending a conference at the embassy. Davidovich told them she was highly alarmed by her meeting with the Jewish organizations.
  • When Davidovich went back to Israel, she briefed senior foreign ministry officials about the meeting and said she was very concerned, a senior foreign ministry official told me.
  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

State of play: The new Israeli government, with Netanyahu as its prime minister, is expected to be sworn in on Thursday.

  • Ben Gvir will serve as the new minister of national security with unprecedented authority over the police, including the border guard units in the occupied West Bank.
  • Smotrich will be the new finance minister and serve as a minister in the Defense Ministry with authority over the military units in charge of civilian policy in the West Bank.
  • Maoz will become a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office and head a new commission for Jewish identity and have authority over educational programs for schools.

The coalition agreement between Netanyahu and his partners included many clauses that have already created public uproar, including passing a law that will allow certain businesses to discriminate against gay people for religious reasons and canceling a law that bans racists from running in the elections.

  • Netanyahu on Sunday issued several clarifications in an attempt to distance himself from these parts of the coalition agreements, while his aides told reporters he has no intention of implementing them.

What to watch: The representatives of the Jewish organizations said during the meeting they would like to meet Netanyahu after he assumes office to discuss their concerns directly with him, the sources said.

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