Jewish civic leader: Israel-U.S. relations will endure

Avital Leibovich, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem Office.
Avital Leibovich, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem Office.

Just five days before critical Israeli elections, the latest polls show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party trailing the rival centrist-left Zionist Union by a few points.

But Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem Office, said at a luncheon in Miami on Thursday that Tuesday’s election to determine the next prime minister remains too close to call.

“Israelis are very involved people, very critical people,” said Leibovich, who is also the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson.

Leibovich noted that in Israel, voter turnout is expected to be 65 to 67 percent and the two main issues voters most care about are security and the economy, particularly rising living costs for the middle class. “When they go to vote, they look at the leader of the party and they want to make sure this leader is the right leader to lead them through the next war — because there will be a next war,” she said.

She also said the biggest surprise of the elections will be gains by Arab parties, who are currently projected to win between 10 and 13 seats in the 120-member Israeli Knesset (parliament).

“This is for the first time an impressive power situation for the Arab parties,” she said.

After her keynote remarks during the AJC luncheon at the downtown offices of Greenberg Traurig, Leibovich joined a panel discussion titled “Middle East in Turmoil: Threats and Opportunities.” The discussion came about a week after Netanyahu’s criticism during a controversial visit to Washington of U.S. negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal. Joining Leibovich was Miami Herald World Editor John Yearwood, Juan Dircie, associate director of AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, and Brian Siegal, director of AJC’s Miami and Broward Region.

Discussion quickly turned to the reaction and potential impact of Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress. Leibovich blasted the media in both countries for over-playing the lead-up to and coverage of the speech. “This speech will be forgotten, but the topic of Iran will be here to stay,” she said.

“Despite all the possible friction between the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister, if you ask an Israeli on the street, any Israeli knows that the U.S. is the strongest ally of Israel and the security cooperation has never been stronger.... I truly believe Israel and the U.S. will continue their strong relations regardless of any political situation,” she said.

Netanyahu’s speech was watched by a large number of people despite a time of the day when viewership is low, she said. The speech was also the most searched Internet terms at the time, she said.

After the speech, Israelis’ “hearts were filled with pride because they felt there was a leader that could represent them,” she said.

She noted that Netanyahu received a small bounce in the polls after the speech but but it has since evaporated.

Leibovich also gave the group her view of the security situation on the ground.

“As a Israeli living in the Tel Aviv area, I can tell you that Iran is very much existing in three out of Israel’s four borders,” she said.

For example, in Syria, she said, a half-dozen terrorist groups operated five years ago — today, there are 35 such groups. And “there are other actors on the ground. Lately we have noticed ... elite Iranian units present. ... This is the first time we have had Iranian fighters a few meters from our borders.”

Dircie also brought Latin America relations into the discussion, noting that five Latin American countries recalled their ambassadors during last year’s Israel-Gaza conflict.

Of the 20 Latin America countries, nine did not have diplomatic relations with Israel at the time of the conflict, he said.

Reasons he gave: leftist ideology of some governments in the region and the fact that the Arab-Palestinian communities are becoming larger and more politically active.

“But there is also perception in the region that the U.S. is not so engaged in the Middle East process,” he siad.

Another factor, Dircie added, is Iran. “The Iranian penetration is Latin America is clear and it is very clear Iran is pushing an anti-Israel, any-Jewish, anti-American agenda in the region,” he said.

He also faulted Israel for not seriously engaging in Latin America, noting that in the last 20 years only one Israeli president visited the region.

“The Israeli government needs to understand they need to build the relationship,” he said.