Israel’s Politics Look Like America’s
As I sat Sunday night at an outdoor restaurant on Jaffa Road and watched thousands of jubilant, mostly young people stream by after celebrating Jerusalem Day, it was possible to imagine that Israel is a united country. But a few days spent reading the Israeli press and engaging in political conversation dispels this illusion. There are too many similarities between Israeli and American politics.
In Israel as in the U.S., the contending forces are deeply divided, and the current government’s majority hangs by a thread. In both countries, diverse coalitions are held together by mistrust and loathing of the other side. Right-leaning forces campaign relentlessly against the threat of an undifferentiated “Left” while the center and far-left fear the return to power of a charismatic populist conservative leader. Both sides believe that the future—and the soul—of the nation are at stake, and they may be right.
READ MORE POLITICS & IDEAS
- The Baby Formula Shortage and Bad Governance May 24, 2022
- Bill Clinton’s Recipe for Economic Growth May 17, 2022
- The Democrats’ Roe v. Wade Pitfall May 10, 2022
- How the Ukraine War Changed History May 3, 2022
- France’s Center Holds—for Now April 26, 2022
After each election, Israel’s president turns to the leader of one of the parties to assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. When Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to do so last year, the president gave this opportunity to Naftali Bennett, the leader of a small right-wing party, who cobbled together a majority. But now, hobbled by threats and defections, Mr. Bennett’s eight-party government might not last much longer. If it falls, new elections—the fifth in three years—are likely. But this may not resolve the deadlock.
A recently released Jerusalem Post poll found that as in previous elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party would come out on top, but the coalition it leads would fall short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in Israel’s Knesset. The poll explored the distribution of seats under alternate scenarios that the most probable fissures and mergers in Israel’s parties would create. The outcome: Power would be rearranged within the two coalitions, but the balance between them wouldn’t change.
The terminology of left and right in Israeli politics obscures a large historical change: The Left as it once existed has collapsed, and the center of gravity has shifted to the right. In various incarnations, the Labor Party dominated Israel for nearly three decades and vied with Likud for another three. Today, it controls only 7 seats out of 120, while Likud has 30.
But Labor’s loss hasn’t been Likud’s gain. Under Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership, his party has been buffeted by internal splits—and by quarrels with parties that previously supported him. After the most recent election, three such parties refused to back him and instead joined forces with centrist, leftist, and Arab parties to end his decade-plus as prime minister. Despite winning only seven seats, the leader of one the new right-wing parties, Mr. Bennett, became prime minister after agreeing to rotate leadership with Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party.
To call this situation fragile is an understatement. To the dismay of many center-left Israelis, 69% of respondents to the Jerusalem Post opposed including an Arab party in the next government. And if someone other than Mr. Netanyahu led Likud, the odds are that at least one of the dissident right-wing parties would return to the fold, leading to the formation of a more ideologically coherent majority coalition. One wonders how long it would take for Likud to decide that, despite his political talents, Mr. Netanyahu is hindering his party’s return to power.
In Israel as in the U.S., the close balance between the parties has led to a constant battle for political advantage, whatever the consequences for governance and the country’s long-term interest. For example, the Israeli government recently proposed to increase education tuition subsidies for former members of its armed forces, a policy favored by nearly everyone. But in a secretly taped meeting, Miri Regev, an ambitious Likud leader, urged members of her party to vote against the bill. “We have decided that we are a militant opposition and we want to bring down this government, so there are no stomach aches,” she declared. Whatever the government’s agenda, she insisted—whether about soldiers, the disabled, or even rape victims—Likud members of the Knesset must resist their natural sympathies and vote against it.
A similar logic drove Sen. Mitch McConnell’s famous declaration that his principal objective was to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term president. And it induces leaders of both parties to introduce bills designed to send messages to the electorate rather than become law.
In a remarkable exchange of letters in 1934, the right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky responded to socialist and rival David Ben-Gurion’s expressions of trust and esteem by confessing that “Recently, I’ve begun to hate this way of life; my soul is weary of all the constant, endless bitterness stretching beyond the horizon. You’ve reminded me that perhaps there is an end to it after all.”
I suspect that many of today’s Israelis and Americans share this weariness and hope for a sign that it can end. I know I do. But doing so will take leaders who are strong enough to face down their most obdurate supporters.