David Brooks, my favorite New York Times columnist, began his March 20, 2015 essay:
Today it’s harder to have faith in rapid progress. Democracy is receding. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia are marching. The European project is decaying. Economies are struggling. Reactionary forces like the Islamic State and Iran are winning. The Middle East is deteriorating. . . .
At these moments, tough guys do well. Cooperative skills are less valued while confrontational skills are more valued. Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election in Israel.
Netanyahu has been in power for about half of the last 18 years, and is now poised to become the longest-serving prime minister in the nation’s history. Many had written him off before recent elections. Why was he re-elected? And what does his success say about the metanarrative at work in Israel today?
What is Israel’s metanarrative?
George Friedman, a geopolitical analyst, has made popular the concept of a “metanarrative.” In essence, this is a guiding worldview, a set of priorities and agendas that form and explain behavior. Individuals, organizations, and countries all have metanarratives. When we identify a nation’s metanarrative, we are better able to understand its past actions and predict its future behavior.
The metanarrative of the State of Israel has been clear from its formation on May 14, 1948: to provide a homeland for the Jewish people. This metanarrative is tied directly to the security of the country. From its inception, the State of Israel has faced adversaries who seek its destruction.
Its War of Independence was fought against a coalition of forces from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. In years since, Israel has fought against these countries as well as forces from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In recent years, it has faced attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As a result, Israel expects its prime minister to put national security above all other priorities.
Why did Netanyahu win?
Before the March 17, 2015 national elections, Israeli citizens were frustrated with a housing shortage and soaring cost of living. Polls indicated that Netanyahu’s opposition, which focused almost exclusively on these internal issues, would at least tie him in the vote if not defeat his party.
Of course, Netanyahu‘s Likud Party swept to a broad and decisive victory. It has become a nearly-universal consensus after the election that Israelis voted for security over economic stability. They remember the Gaza conflict. They remember rockets that can now reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They remember sirens sending them to bomb shelters, living for weeks in a war zone with no end in sight. And they do not want to go back.
Since the Gaza conflict, the Islamic State has enlarged its foothold in Syria, on Israel’s northern border. A spate of “lone wolf” attacks in Jerusalem culminated in a synagogue stabbing attack in November, 2014. Security personnel have since arrested six Palestinian men suspected of belonging to a Hamas cell in the West Bank. The cell was reportedly plotting to carry out bombings in Israel. And negotiations with Iran have left many Israelis terrified that a nation which has pledged to annihilate them could have nuclear weapons.
If we follow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we need air, food, drink, and warmth first. Next comes safety and security. Only then do we move upward to love and belonging, self-esteem, and realizing personal growth and potential. Security trumps economic progress.
In addition, a class conflict is brewing in Israel. The modern state was founded by Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. They tend to be more liberal and conciliatory. By contrast, the working class Jews of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern descent, tend to be more hawkish and conservative. As their numbers increase, so does the political power of the conservative parties they favor.
What has happened since the elections?
On March 23, 2015, Netanyahu received enough support to form Israel’s next government. With 61 Knesset members already in his coalition, he reached the number required. Most importantly, Moshe Kahlon, head of the socially oriented party Kulanu, announced that he would give his support and 10 seats in the Knesset to Netanyahu’s coalition.
Netanyahu has apologized to Arab Israelis for his Election Day remarks. He has promised to ensure “the welfare and security of all Israeli citizens.” He has announced that he will release the tax revenues Israel charges on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. These finances were frozen by Israel last January, 2015, retaliating for the Palestinians’ decision to seek membership in the International Criminal Court. By April 2015 there will be over half a billion dollars of frozen revenue to transmit.
In addition, many in Jerusalem expect the prime minister to replace his ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer. He engineered Netanyahu’s address to Congress, and is now expected to swap places with Ron Proser, currently the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
Most significantly, Netanyahu has stated that his election-day statement opposing a two-state solution was made with regard to present realities: an autonomous Palestinian state on Israel’s border would bring terrorists that much closer to the Jewish state. Why does he believe that a two-state solution would not work with present realities? He explains to an American reporter:
[A Palestinian state] would become a terrorist state. Iran says that they will arm the West Bank the way they arm Gaza. We withdrew from Gaza. We got—just a few months ago; not ancient history, but a few months ago—thousands of rockets . . . on our heads . . . We don’t want it to happen again. . . . if you want to get peace, you’ve got to get the Palestinian leadership to abandon their pact with Hamas and engage in genuine negotiations with Israel for an achievable peace. We also have to make sure that we don’t have ISIS coming into that territory. [Islamic State is] only two dozen miles from our borders, thousands of miles away from yours. So we need the conditions of recognition of a Jewish state and real security in order to have a realistic two-state solution.
In fact, according to the intelligence service Stratfor, a two-state solution is not viable.
- Gaza and the West Bank are not connected geographically; neither is economically viable. Demilitarized, both would become dependent on Israel for trade and jobs.
- Such a “nation” would place much of the Israeli heartland—the Tel Aviv-Haifa-Jerusalem triangle—within artillery and rocket range.
- The Palestinians have no single leader who speaks for them. Any agreement would empower a significant minority to launch attacks.
So the Israeli metanarrative, a peaceful Jewish state, is threatened by such a solution. The Palestinian metanarrative, control of their own land, is economically not viable, either. Stratfor concludes: “If it were possible to implement a two-state solution in the last 20 years, it would have happened. Implementation demands that both Israelis and Palestinians assume risks that neither can accept.”
What about Iran?
President Obama recently sent a conciliatory message to Iran, airing during Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He was hoping to speed passage of an agreement intended to limit that nation’s ability to produce nuclear arms. However, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spoke to the crowds, “Death to America” chants were repeated multiple times during his speech.
Last November 2014, Khamenei tweeted that “there is no cure for Israel other than annihilation.” The proposed deal would, in the view of one respected Jewish observer, “leave thousands of centrifuges spinning, an inadequate inspections framework, and a demonstrable lack of international will to respond to the inevitable violations of the accord.”
What about Christians in the region?
Only 21 percent of Israeli Jews identify with religious Zionism; another 23 percent identify slightly. Some 53 percent are secular Jews with no religious commitment of any kind.
This does not mean that there are no Christians among the Jews of Israel. In fact, a strong Messianic movement is happening as we speak. According to some missionaries, more Jews have come to Christ in the last 20 years than in the previous 20 centuries. But most retain their Jewish identity, continue to observe Jewish religious customs, and do not join Christian churches. As a result, their numbers are not counted.
By contrast, nearly all the professing Christians in Israel are Arabs. The Arab population is roughly 20 percent of Israel’s 7.9 million people. Only 157,100 are Christian, according to 2012 statistics from the Israeli Census Bureau. Whether they will continue to identify with Israel after the election remains to be seen.
What comes next?
When the Palestinian Authority joins the International Criminal Court at The Hague on April 1, 2015, it promises to press war crimes charges against Israel for the Gaza conflict during the summer. Israel pledges to withhold tax revenue in return.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is said to be considering a peace plan that would force Israel to give up its settlements. Another option is to withdraw U.S. support in the United Nations by abstaining the next time a resolution condemning Israeli settlements comes up in the Security Council.
What do the elections mean for American Jews?
Anti-Semitism is rising in the U.S. According to one survey, 54 percent of Jewish college students reported being subjected to or witnessing anti-Semitism on their campuses. Many consider these incidents to be underreported across the nation. And many Jews did not feel that universities took their concerns seriously. “Death to Israel,” swastikas, and “Kill all the Jews” graffiti have been appearing on campuses from California to Georgia.
Meanwhile, tensions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government continue to grow. There have been challenges in the U.S.-Israel relationship before:
- In 1975, President Gerald Ford halted arms shipments after Israel rejected U.S. proposals to leave the Sinai Peninsula.
- In 1981, President Ronald Reagan stopped weapons deliveries to Jerusalem after its air strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor and its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
- In 1991, President George H. W. Bush held back loan guarantees after Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir opposed the Madrid peace talks.
But Robert M. Danin, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, observed: “While the United States is loved and beloved in Israel, President Obama is not. So the perceived enmity didn’t hurt the way it did with Shamir when he ran afoul of Bush in ’91.”
How will American Jews respond? According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 70 percent of Jews in America said they felt very or somewhat attached to the nation of Israel.
The Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative Jewish movement in America, issued a statement condemning Mr. Netanyahu’s warning that Arab voters were streaming to the polls. Their leaders claimed that his statement “is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
However, a conservative retired rabbi stated, “My greatest thrill is that Netanyahu was able to pull off a feat that in my opinion was not only good for the morale of Israel and the security of Israel, but finally put Obama in his place.” He added, “Being more or less in control of your own self, your own country, or your own being is much more important than being loved by others.”
How can we serve our Jewish neighbors?
As has historically been the case, ministry to Jewish people must follow a three-part strategy.
First, live with consistent integrity. The Jewish people are pragmatic by nature and worldview. They value acts over words, measuring our theology by our character. They must see Christ-like morality before they will consider Christ for themselves.
Second, build reciprocal relationships. Remember what an observant Jew must sacrifice to follow Jesus—family rejection, cultural animosity, enormous identity challenges. Before they can consider such a decision, they must find in us something they want for themselves. They must believe that our churches will be a safe home, family and community. They must trust us before they will trust our Lord.
Third, pray for the Spirit to move in the hearts of your Jewish friends. Only the Holy Spirit can convict of sin, save souls, or change lives. Intercede for such transformation, and ask the Spirit to use you as his instrument.
Remember that Jesus was a Jew. So were each of his apostles. So was Paul. Every book of the Bible (except for Luke-Acts and possibly Hebrews) was written by a Jew. Christians owe a tremendous debt to our Jewish sisters and brothers.
Most of all, we owe them the opportunity to know their Messiah. Can Jesus use you to introduce them to him?