On Monday afternoon, shortly after 4:30 pm, the mostly middle-aged to elderly audience members — armed with cookies, pastries and beverages — shifted in their seats as more places were set out to accommodate the large number of attendees to Shmuel Rosner’s presentation about the recent Israeli elections. Audience members spoke in varying accents of Hebrew and English as they waited for the event to begin.
The presentation was part of a series of events about Israel and Israeli culture organized by UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Rosner, a writer and political analyst, is the senior political editor of and writes a weekly column for the Jewish Journal. Rosner is also the chief nonfiction editor for a large Israeli publishing house, has written for media such as Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, and is the author of a blog, a book about American Jews, and a voting guide. On Monday night, in the Charles E. Young Research Library’s Presentation Room, Rosner largely limited his presentation to the topic of the 2015 Knesset elections, although other matters were introduced by audience members.
The recent elections were precipitated by serious disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of his ministers, resulting in Netanyahu’s dismissal of then-Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and then-Minister of Finance Yair Lapid and the dissolution of the government. Both Livni and Lapid ran in the March 2015 elections, Livni with the newly-formed Zionist Union party, headed by herself and Isaac Herzog, and Lapid with his Yesh Atid party. Netanyahu’s Likud party won nearly a quarter of the Knesset seats, followed by the Zionist Union with nearly one-fifth of the seats. The Arab Joint List party won about one-tenth of the seats, followed by Yesh Atid, the economically-focused Kulanu party, the Jewish Home religious-Zionist party, and the Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and United Torah Judaism parties of different charedi groups. Bringing up the rear with five seats was the left-wing, social-democratic Metertz party.
Rosner discussed the possible resultant governments as being either a Likud-Zionist Union-Kulanu unity government or a “right-wing” bloc coalition comprised of Likud, Kulanu, Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and United Torah Judaism. Regarding the former, Rosner explained that it might be the best for Netanyahu’s PR because he could use another party’s leader as a second in negotiating — much like a role filled by Livni before her dismissal. Likud, with its greater number of seats, could also exert a greater role in the government. However, Rosner said, aside from this deal benefiting Likud more than the Zionist Union, the Union’s members, who primarily were associated with the Labor party (formerly the main threat to Netanyahu’s Likud), have become “tired of following Netanyahu.”
Regarding the latter option of the coalition, which would have fewer seats than the unity government but would not require Likud cooperation with the Zionist Union, Rosner explained that a smaller government could be easily manipulated and destabilized by one of the members of the smaller parties in the coalition. Furthermore, the Israeli public might disapprove of the influence yielded by the charedi parties and any possible efforts by charedi representatives to move the government further toward the religious right. Finally, given that the Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and other probable coalition leaders publicly do not support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the coalition could damage Netanyahu and Israel’s PR image.
Rosner also discussed Israeli perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and explained that most Israelis support negotiations but are highly skeptical of their success. He said that the majority view it as something that cannot be “solved” but that can be “managed” instead, and that “someday, somehow, maybe 20 years down the road, maybe 50 years down the road, we will get to separation from the Palestinians.” He estimated that a small minority support annexation of the West Bank and full absorption of its Palestinian inhabitants into Israel.
Rosner concluded with a discussion of Israel’s current expectations and fears regarding a nuclear deal with Iran. “Predicting what’s going to happen next week in the Middle East is just impossible,” he said of the proposed regulations on the nuclear program and Iran’s governmental agreements. “And Israelis know that.” Rosner continued, “Israelis see a world that doesn’t get it. The world keeps going back to old formations. The world keeps going back to the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords? That’s so early 90s!”
He also explained that regardless of the formation of the next Israeli government, both Netanyahu and Herzog believe that the proposed deal is bad for Israel.The difference lies in their approach to negotiating it: Netanyahu, for various reasons, no longer believes that he can work with President Obama on the deal and favors going through Congress (as he did a month ago). Herzog, in contrast, is optimistic about still going the diplomatic route with Obama. However, Rosner opined that the Israeli public is now skeptical about the willingness of the United States to protect its Israeli ally. “The American president is the one who holds the umbrella above Israel,” he said. “…With the current president, Barack Obama, Israelis aren’t sure that they can still feel that way.”
What can UCLA students do regarding concerns for Israel or opinions about its government? Rosner suggests that Bruins — like all concerned global citizens — can “…give money to Israeli politicians…host Israeli politicians…support all kinds of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Israel that have political impact on Israeli society.”
The event ended with attendees trickling away as audience questioning went overtime, since a few final people argued about the need for Israel to engage college-age youngsters as advocates. Rosner packed his materials and left behind a positive message from his final responses to the question-and-answer session: there may be conflict and tension between Obama and Netanyahu, exacerbated by Iran and its uranium, but “the United States is still the one and only reliable ally Israel has.” Americans and Israelis in attendance nodded in accord.