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Ex-pats launch Israeli Opposition Network, call for regime change in Israel

UPDATE: Scroll to bottom for corrections.

New York — For Yael Berda, the unexpectedly strong showing of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party in Israel’s recent national elections is no reason for centrists or liberals to celebrate. Lapid’s party labels itself centrist, she says, but its domestic and security policies are so similar to the right wing parties’ that it will only serve to bolster their agenda. The neophyte politician is from Israel’s wealthy Ashkenazi elite, which identifies with Europe and the United States. “In that cultural sense,” she said, “You can call Lapid a liberal.” But not in terms of his views on security and wealth distribution.

“The best way to understand Yair Lapid,” she said, “Is to see him as an Israeli Sarkozy.”

Berda, an Israeli studying for her doctorate at Princeton University, joined together with a group of Israeli academics at various universities in the United States to form a group called the Israeli Opposition Network. Yesterday they sent out a global email announcement that amounts to a sort of manifesto:

Israelis living in the United States who oppose current Israeli Leadership launch “Israel Opposition Network” warning that election results threaten democracy and rule of law in Israel

 [January 23, 2013, New York] A group of highly engaged young Israeli intellectuals and professionals living the United States who are concerned about Israel’s increasingly fragile democracy have launched the ‘Israeli Opposition Network’ , a political movement opposed to the current political leadership in Israel.

“It’s a mistake to look at the results of today’s election in Israel as a division between two blocks,” says Nitzan Lebovic, a professor of history and a member of the Israeli Opposition Network. “The large majority of the parties in both blocks represent something closer to a Conservative agenda in American and European terms.”

“As advocates for human and civil rights, we fear election results still reflect a political deadlock that stifles the possibility for change. The rise of a centrist party calling for the draft of the ultra religious is not expected to address the more serious concerns about Israel. As long as control is maintained over a large population of Palestinians with no representation and no citizenship, Israel’s label as ‘democratic’ remains an unfulfilled promise,” says Itamar Mann, an Israeli lawyer at Harvard Yale Law School.

“With over 25% under the poverty line and the wholesale privatization of national assets to a small number of families, while most of the public struggle with massive debt and the inability to afford a home, the current leadership benefits the few while over four million Palestinians whose lives are controlled by the Israeli Government could not participate in the vote,” says Liron Mor, currently at Columbia Cornell University.

“We want Israel to be a democracy. We are part a growing opposition in Israel, not only to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza but also to the corrupt and unjust economic policies that have sent the middle classes spiraling into poverty. We care deeply for the public in Israel, are extremely concerned for the residents of the occupied territories and for future of the state in the region. We believe we must raise our voices in the US to show that there is a young and capable democratic opposition to the current Israeli leadership,” says Yael Berda, an Israeli Lawyer at Princeton University.

Yesh Atid succeeded in capturing votes that might otherwise have gone to the old Likud party (before it kicked out the moderates and merged with Yisrael Beiteinu), because, explained Berda, “People don’t want to vote for Lieberman. That’s also a cultural thing that goes beyond the fact that he’s right wing. He makes Israel look bad. He’s also a Russian. And Lapid is an Israeli.”

Lapid is also a certain type of Israeli — a type  that most Israelis in the greater Tel Aviv area, where the bulk of the country’s Jewish population resides, see as a reflection of themselves, or how they would like to be seen — i.e., secular, western in cultural outlook, uninterested in the Palestinian issue as long as it causes them no personal pain, and against the ultra-Orthodox. In fact, a significant aspect of Lapid’s politics is the populist issue of expanding mandatory military service to include the ultra-Orthodox, who are currently exempt. The issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox has long been a populist issue in Israel. The late Tommy Lapid, Yair’s father, headed a party that ran in the 2003 elections on a secular, anti-Orthodox platform. His party, Shinui, won 15 seats in 2003 but fizzled and died by the next round of elections. In the early 1980s a party called Tzomet was successful with a similar platform; it, too, is a relic of history. As is Kadima: seven years ago it was a powerhouse party; this election it barely won enough votes to keep a single seat in the Knesset.

One of Lapid’s first post-election actions was to announce that he would be willing to join a coalition with Netanyahu — but not with Haneen Zoabi (the controversial Balad MK). In other words, said Berda,  “He was completely delegitimizing 20 percent of the population and their representatives. That is exactly the same language the right wing uses.”

Lapid has said almost nothing about the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, which drew hundreds of thousands to the streets to demonstrate against a range of issues, mostly connected with unequal wealth distribution, deteriorating social services and education, and the prohibitive cost of housing. That summer, said Berda, was a defining event for a generation of Israelis, inspring dozens of grassroots initiatives.

Berda said she and her colleagues were shocked to discover that American Jews had not heard about the social justice protests, and that they seemed to know so little about Israeli society in general — even though the organized community was reflexively supportive of the government.

“We think the Jewish community has a very skewed view of Israeli politics and society and democracy. They didn’t understand the social justice protests. They don’t believe there are 2 million Israelis living in poverty.”

On the other hand, she and her colleagues at the ION believe the Jewish community in the United States has a lot to teach them about community organizing (“not fundraising”) and that they have a legitimate interest in Israel that goes far beyond donating money. “When you look at American Jewish history you can see that there is a lot to learn from it,” she said.

Berda and her colleagues want to build an alliance between the Israeli Opposition Network and the American Jewish community.

“We believe the entire regime in Israel has to change,” she said bluntly. “Right now Jewish Americans support Israel no matter what it does. And that has got to stop. The government of Israel does not reflect the public; nor does it care about the public. It is making no efforts toward peace. Israel is a democracy only for some of the Jews some of the time. We are afraid. We are at a point where we need help.”

The ION, which Berda estimates is currently composed of between 40 and 50 members, wants to be a political home for like-minded Israelis living in the United States, as well as a bridge to local Jewish communities. The academics, journalists and activists in the group are experienced public speakers, available to speak to Jewish communities across the United States.

Corrections: Following publication of this article, Yael Berda contacted +972 with two corrections to the press release she sent out the previous day. Itamar Mann is at Yale Law School and not Harvard, as in the original text; and Liron Mor is at Cornell University rather than Columbia. The text has been edited accordingly.

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    1. Mitchell Cohen

      Yael Berda sounds like a cry baby to me….

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      This group is trying to portray itself as a group of Yordim and other Israelis in the US who are supposedly “concerned at the direction Israel is taking” and they want to “awaken American Jewry to the problem of poverty in Israel”.

      In fact, the following quote reveals their true view:
      The rise of a Centrist Party joins calling for the draft of the ultra religious into the military joins War mongering, adoption of racial laws against the Palestinian minority and the government’s witch-hunt against civil servants from the opposition means we can no longer call it a democracy that employs the rule of law equally
      for its citizens,” says Itamar Mann, an Israeli lawyer at Harvard

      The comment about wanting equality of military or national service among all sectors of the population is defined as “warmongering”. In fact, this group is nothing more than another extremist Leftist group interesting in nothing more than Israel bashing. I am sure the American Jewish community, whom they are trying to influence in a negative way, will understand that these people don’t represent anything close to mainlind Israeli public opinion.

      Reply to Comment
    3. The Trespasser

      >The government of Israel does not reflect the public

      A wise comment to make right after elections.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Good for Yael and all of the other Israelis who are saying, “Not in our name and not with our blessing.” She is a remarkable woman, and I’m proud to know her

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        It certainly take a lot of gall to claim that the “government of Israel does not represent the public”. We just had democratic elections and the overwhelming majority of the population voted for Zionist parties, and a clear majority supported “right-wing” parties. You “progressives” who claim to speak for all of humanity because you think you have a lock on the truth and what the rest of us think is simply dismissed by you have been rightly rejected by the vast majority of the Jewish people. You ‘progressives’ are consigned to the dustbin of history.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          “We just had democratic elections and the overwhelming majority of the population voted for Zionist parties, and a clear majority supported “right-wing” parties”
          Wrong on both counts. First of all, if Israel was a true democracy, then 4 million Palestinians who live under the yoke of its occupation for almost 46 years (and counting) would have had a vote as well. They didn’t.
          Secondly – why is it that every election has a new centrist party running and surprising the established parties with their seemingly stellar performances (2003 – Shinui, 2006 – Kadima, and now the man of the future as the latest ‘meteor’)? Could it be because the Israeli public is so sick of Israeli politics that they’re willing to give their vote to anyone who will promise them a “better future”? I will hazard a guess right now that in 4 years there will be a new centrist party that will seemingly come out of nowhere and will eventually return there as well.
          Lastly, a democracy in which only about 60% of the population votes (and that’s considered good by Israel’s standards) is a flawed democracy.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >if Israel was a true democracy, then 4 million Palestinians who live under the yoke of its occupation for almost 46 years (and counting) would have had a vote as well. They didn’t.

            Being “citizens” of another “state” they are not supposed to, by any standard.

            >Could it be because the Israeli public is so sick of Israeli politics that they’re willing to give their vote to anyone who will promise them a “better future”?

            Since these parties got not more than 22% of votes, it seems that Israeli public isn’t that sick of Israeli politics.

            >a democracy in which only about 60% of the population votes is a flawed democracy.

            That’s a nice chunk of dishonest nonsense.


            Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        Does she know of your previous incident
        with the Antisemitic websites you visit and articles etc that you pass on as interesting reading

        Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      Clearly these people care so much about fighting for the character of Israel that they have abandoned the country altogether and the issue that appears to disturb them most deeply is that American Jews don’t despise Israel as much as they do.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mitchell Cohen

        hear hear

        Reply to Comment
    6. Richard Witty

      Regime change through a proposed electoral campaign, even resulting from a no-confidence parliamentary resolution, is not regime change. That’s elections.

      Her description of Haneen Zoabi represting 20% of the population is false. Balad got 5 seats, 4% of the electorate.

      Yesh Atid might sit in a coalition with Labor (any Arabs/Palestinians on their list?), with Meretz (any Arabs/Palestinians on their list?), maybe even Hadash (unlikely though).

      But, they are different parties than Balad.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Joel

      “that election results threaten democracy and rule of law in Israel”

      Sounds like an oxymoron.

      And peaking of fragile democracies, why am I not allowed to post on 972 using my Israeli IP address?

      Reply to Comment
    8. Jason

      Couple of huge problems with this theory. If Jerusalemites demand citizenship and since it couldn’t be stricken as with other Israeli Arabs Jerusalem would then truly be off the table. As for Gaza joining in wont happen they guard their own power far too much. The Israelis could then annex and offer citizenship and assume (likely a large percentage wouldn’t if they got benefits as residents and many would be too stubborn to apply – and that’s all the Israelis have to do is offer. Your scare tactic would result in a game over.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Boxthorn

      Dateline London, 1776

      A group of Cambridge and Oxford dons originally from the American colonies have set up a group complaining about recent events in Philadelphia.

      ‘Why is everyone paying so much attention to this 33-year-old Jefferson person no one here knows anything about. And George Washington? What a warmonger.

      People should pay attention to us. We who are talking to each other at this coffeehouse thousands of miles away form the colonies. We are far more important.’

      The group then left the coffeehouse, tripped over a drunk Samuel Johnson and was never heard from again.


      Reply to Comment
    10. XYZ, above, is right that it is rather hard to claim Israeli elections do not represent the public, as this election turn out was on the high side for that country. But Lapid’s ostracism of Zoabi reflects some of the structural consequences of Israeli party list elections. Rights jurisprudence is not about majority control, however defined. The Court has been disallowed effective judicial review in the past, and now may well have new Justices who will shun it themselves. What Israel is showing us is that democracy and rights formation can be dislodged from one another under rather stable conditions.

      The settlers and religious right have ongoing micro group formation and maintenance. The center, let alone the left, does not. This tends to ratchet success of the right while leading to ephemeral gains, then losses, of all else. Neo-liberalism (whose alternatives are not all pure socialism) has managed to priviledge, in outcome, religion and settlement on the ground. I have yet to see alternative ogranization for other views.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Zoabi is a #1 enemy of Israel – by her own will, mind you. Nothing is too bad to be done to her.

        Reply to Comment
    11. Marcos

      As someone that ION feels is their target audience, I feel patronized, insulted, and embarrassed that Ms. Berda feels she has the ability to influence my thinking with such an agenda and weekly constructed arguments.

      Reply to Comment