British olim at the forefront of the Israeli election campaign set out their candidate’s stalls at a UJS debate just three weeks before voters go to the polls.
Yair Zivan for Yesh Atid, Jason Pearlman for New Hope and Avi Hyman of Likud were among representatives speaking at a virtual event this week.
Pearlman, a leading British adviser to Israeli politician Gideon Saar — whose party, New Hope, is presenting a robust right-wing challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March 23 elections — sharply attacked the Joint List party this week, saying its leaders regularly visited terrorists.
Mr Pearlman was among seven campaigners and supporters of the main political parties vying for power in the upcoming election, Israel’s fourth visit to the polls in two years. His attack took place towards the end of a unique event, hosted by the Union of Jewish Students in the UK, and presented in Israel as a showcase for the seven parties.
Moderated by the American Jewish Committee’s Avi Mayer in Jerusalem, the format rarely allowed for rebuttal among the seven representatives, four of whom were ex-pat Britons who had made aliya — and one of whom, Yair Zivan, speaking for Yesh Atid, described himself as having “cut my political teeth” with UJS. All the participants applauded UJS for its initiative in staging the event, and particularly lauded Bristol’s Jewish students for their current fight against academic David Miller.
Mr Pearlman, a former foreign spokesman for Israel’s president, and now an outspoken campaigner for Gideon Saar, told the Joint List spokesman, Oren Feld, that “many people in your party visit terrorists in jail, we can’t hide that. Your party needs to come out and stop supporting terrorism and terrorists who have killed Israelis.” A somewhat startled Mr Feld, having already spoken, was unable to respond to Mr Pearlman’s claim. The Joint List is the main party for Israeli Arabs in Israel.
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At opposite ends of the political spectrum were ex-Briton and Reform rabbi Haim Shalom, an activist for the left-wing Meretz group, and Avi Hyman, another British immigrant who runs the Anglo campaign for the Likud party. The line-up was completed by American-Israeli Councillor Penina Solomon, who volunteers for Naftali Bennett’s campaign in her home town of Zichron Yaakov, and Jason Silverman, an American who fronts Young Labor in Tel Aviv.
Each of the seven was given first three minutes to introduce their party’s policies to the largely student audience on-line, and then diminishing amount of time both to respond to Avi Mayer’s and audience questions, and finally to sum up.
Avi Hyman, a fierce Netanyahu loyalist, said the election was really only between the Prime Minister and the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid. He also claimed — despite the presence of the Joint List’s Oren Feld — that there was massive Arab support for Mr Netanyahu, and said he had been at a recent Likud rally in which a “sheikh” had sat by the Prime Minister, who was known in Arabic as “Abu Yair”, literally “father of Yair”. (The Prime Minister’s elder son is called Yair).
Mr Hyman also said the elections were an opportunity for Mr Netanyahu to build a full, right-wing coalition. He did not respond to attacks from Rabbi Shalom, Mr Zivan or Mr Silverman about the alleged “corruption” of the current government, nor to complaints that Mr Netanyahu was allying Likud with extreme right-wing racists.
All the panellists, however, asked about relations with the diaspora, specifically in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling about Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, welcomed the ruling, saying there must be equality for every stream of Judaism in the Jewish state. Mr Pearlman, though, laid the blame for the ruling on Mr Netanyahu’s shoulders, saying he had previously refused to engage with the issue.
And all spoke with regret of the “toxicity” of political discourse in Israel. Mr Zivan reported that a Yesh Atid activist had ended up in hospital on Thursday after having been attacked during campaigning. He, like the other panellists, said most of the parties had more in common than was generally realised, and that co-operation was the key to future stable government. The panellists also mainly agreed that the domestic agenda was the main priority as the country emerged from the economic effects of the pandemic.
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