Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing for an unprecedented fifth term this week after his Likud Party emerged with the likeliest chance to form a government after votes were tallied from the parliamentary election on April 9. The victory was cheered by conservative Israelis who support the prime minister’s hard line against Palestinian aspirations in the Middle East, but how was the election outcome received by Israel’s Christian population?
“I am not sure that the term ‘Christian population’ means anything here,” said David Neuhaus, S.J., the former patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, explaining that Israel is home to “three major types of Christians.”
Christian Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, he said in an interview conducted by email, would react just like all other Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.
To them, Father Neuhaus said, Mr. Netanyahu’s victory “means more of the same, more occupation in the Palestinian territories and more discrimination inside Israel.”
For Christians “who are part and parcel of Israeli Jewish society,” mostly of Russian origin, he said, “the fear is that Netanyahu would make strong alliances with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and this would lead to a less secular atmosphere.”
For a third group of Israeli Christians, migrant workers and asylum seekers, “the victory of Netanyahu is a nightmare.” Father Neuhaus explained that the prime minister’s political allies from the hard right “have said that they will push for the expulsion [of migrant workers] and even less space to breathe for them.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s victory “means more of the same, more occupation in the Palestinian territories and more discrimination inside Israel.”
Ultimately though, “I would imagine that most Christians, whatever group they belong to, would have liked to see change so that there might be some small palpable hope for more justice and more peace,” Father Neuhaus said.
Pursued by corruption investigations, the prime minister faced a tough challenge this election and as the race tightened he appeared to ratchet up his campaign rhetoric, openly calling for the annexation of parts of the West Bank—a prospect that would surely make a two-state solution in the Middle East difficult, if not impossible, to implement. A longtime observer of Israeli-Palestinian politics, Father Neuhaus was perhaps not as shocked as some by the comments. That’s because “the two-state solution was never really fully alive.”
According to Father Neuhaus, the Israeli political leadership in recent years has “only mouthed support” for a peace process that concludes with two independent states “and now no longer does even that.”
Father Neuhaus believes that the prime minister’s comments about annexation were not just red meat for his base during the sprint in this contentious race. The remarks “test the waters” now that President Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel has added legitimacy to the seizure of what had been considered Palestinian territory. “Netanyahu certainly wants to avoid any possibility of a Palestinian state,” Father Neuhaus said. In the near term, he said, “the U.S. position on [further annexation] will be decisive.”
But “annexation will most likely be creeping, bit by bit, establishing roads and settlements in particular parts of the West Bank and making sure that what is left is fragmented so that it cannot become a state. This goes hand in hand with ensuring that Palestinian divisions, particularly P.L.O. versus Hamas, would not be overcome.”
“Obviously, I must respect the democratic will of the Israeli people expressed at the ballot box,” said the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, Archbishop for the Military Services and chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace, responding by email. “However, there is also a question of justice here.
“The Palestinian people have been in the Middle East for centuries,” Archbishop Broglio said. “It is also their home. Provision must be made to ensure that they can remain, enjoy a livelihood and be able to raise their families in peace and with a future…. There can be no peace in the Middle East if a people—whose legitimate right to live and work there is beyond question—cannot enjoy peace and prosperity.
“The Holy See has insisted consistently,” he said, “on the importance of a two-state solution and an international status for Jerusalem. The position has been backed by action: Bethlehem University, the trade schools at Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center are only a few examples of this powerful commitment.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks “test the waters” now that President Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel has added legitimacy to the seizure of what had been considered Palestinian territory.
Much has been made of the Trump administration’s efforts to directly support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government and even to shore up his flagging campaign. Since 2017, Mr. Trump has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; he has moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, cut off contact with the Palestinian Authority and terminated U.S. humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza. He recently reversed decades of official U.S. policy in recognizing the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria.
Those various interventions “have disastrously empowered Netanyahu,” Father Neuhaus said. “Some of us thought that maybe this was leading to a day when Trump would demand a payback and use that to establish a Palestinian state, promised since 1947 by the [United Nations] and still unfulfilled. This certainly does not seem to be the way that things are developing, and most of those who seek justice and peace in the Middle East see the Trump administration as an enemy rather than an ally.”
“The Israeli population is very split,” he said. “There are those—a minority—that think the Palestinian question is a burning one, and the vast majority of them believe that the Palestinians should be granted a state of their own, even if it is minuscule and fragmented.”
Other Israelis, he said, prefer to ignore the issue or dismiss the quagmire of competing claims and aspirations in the Holy Land as “insoluble anyway.”
“Many of this group,” he said, “seem to think that Israel can live with the continued occupation without paying too high a price.” That perspective is that the status quo, miserable as it is for many, can continue as long as violence is sporadic, “the international community and most importantly the U.S. does not care about justice for Palestinians.” And the nations of the Arab are “disintegrating” and now more focused on their individual self-interest.
According to this somewhat cynical perspective, “the world will finally weary of the Palestinian issue and justice will be abandoned—as will the Palestinians—as the great powers plot a new Middle East with Israel at its center… an economic beating heart and the rest of the Arab world as partners of Israel.”
Father Neuhaus explains that some in Israel, Christians among them, have come to support a one-state solution as now the more promising vehicle for peace and justice for Palestinians.
In that instance, supporters of annexation and the end of the two-state solution may be careful what they wish for. Father Neuhaus explains that some in Israel, Christians among them, have come to support a one-state solution as now the more promising vehicle for peace and justice for Palestinians.
“It would transform the struggle into a struggle for equality within the state rather than for independence,” he explained. “Many Palestinians no longer have faith in a two-state solution and are alienated from their own leadership…. The struggle for equality among full citizens in a state might be preferred by some over the struggle for a state that is so fragmented, divided, impoverished and dysfunctional that its prospect is more of a nightmare than a dream.”
Editor’s note (April 12, 2019; 11:02 a.m. ET): This report has been updated to include comments from Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio and to correct a misquote. Father Neuhaus said that “some” Israelis had come to support a one-state option, not “many” as original reported.