Desperate measures for messy times


Mr President, my own country is after me, but you will stand by me, won’t you, even if you think I was elected in a political system out of control? American President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have established a close relationship, but Netanyahu faces corruption charges which may weaken his status

IT’S NOT often that many people will agree with United States President Donald Trump on almost anything, but he was right when he said, with characteristic arrogance, that Israeli election politics is ‘all messed up.’ We’ve watched with amazement over recent weeks as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried – and failed – to assemble a coalition government that would be able to shield him from indictment on corruption charges.

For South Africans, this has echoes of former President Jacob Zuma’s legal dodging and diving, with endless court appeals, to try and avoid appearing in court on corruption charges, and the ANC backing him in parliament to defeat votes of no confidence. One could correctly say that both Israeli politics and South African politics are ‘all messed up’, where the entire country is bent to serve one man’s needs – the leader of the government.

Israeli politics has long been intensely important to SA Jews, who have had a strong connection to Zionism over many decades. Amongst numerous SA Jews the passion for Israel remains; aliyah figures are high relative to other countries. But South African Jewish families are spread all over the world, in America and elsewhere, probably more than in Israel’s early years.

The ugly drama of Israeli politics upsets SA Jews as much as others, such as statements from far right leader, MK Bezalel Smotrich who insists that Israel should become a state governed by Jewish biblical law as in King David’s time. Smotrich, known for extreme right-wing opinions and a declared homophobe, announced during recent coalition talks that he wanted the justice portfolio. He won’t receive it – even from Netanyahu.

The world’s two largest Jewish communities, America and Israel, have been growing further apart for a long time, with American Jews on the whole still more liberal than Israelis. A recent survey of 1006 American Jews by the American Jewish Committee revealed that the divide is growing faster than expected. Last year, 70 percent of American Jews questioned said that caring about Israel was a ‘very important’ part of their Jewishness. This year, only 62 percent said so.

Politically, the divide is more dramatic. On the explosive political issue about Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in 2018, 15 percent of respondents said Israel should be willing to dismantle all settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But in 2019, this had risen to 25 percent, according to Haaretz. Only 6 percent of Israeli Jews, however, were willing to dismantle the settlements.

A comparable split exists regarding the nature of a political settlement: Two thirds of American Jews support a two-state solution which establishes a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank; only 39 percent of Israeli Jews do.

Aside from the politics, Israel is experiencing a brain drain, primarily to America, adding to the alienation. Increasingly, Israel’s most educated citizens are immigrating, says a report by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, of Tel Aviv University.

Those leaving come from the segment most crucial to Israel’s success – educated Israelis, professionals looking for a better lifestyle. Despite Israel being the ‘Start-Up Nation,’ workers in high-tech faced ‘huge pressure’ to go to America, closer to investors and markets. This has serious implications. Some 3 percent of Israelis work in high-tech, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the country’s exports. Less political tension in their lives would also be a drawcard for professionals.

Trump may be right: Israeli politics really is all messed up. But given his own ‘America first’ agenda, his power and his closeness to Netanyahu, he is not the one to help clear things up.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


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