Israel 2013 Is Not Bibi’s Israel

Gil Troy on how Israel's democracy worked, surprising only outsiders.

The news is devastating. The hated conservative leader re-elected, after a campaign in which the various candidates were more reminiscent of the “seven dwarves” than the Founding Fathers. The campaign lacked excitement, inspiration, transcendence, and it seemed the voters were voting against the politician they feared more than voting for a leader they liked. One of the exciting newcomers was a smooth-talking, political outsider whose charm obscured his right-wing ideology, luring many centrist voters, while the big winner was a mere celebrity. Liberals are discouraged, frustrated by losing yet again, terrified by what the country is becoming, with some contemplating emigration—as outsiders simply give up on the country.

Before assuming I am talking about Israel, remember your American history. Americans re-elected conservative presidents in 1972, 1984, and 2004. The “seven dwarves” is a political “diss” from the 1988 Democratic primary. Many American campaigns, including the 2012 presidential race, have lacked excitement and prompted defensive voting. Ronald Reagan was a smooth-talking outsider—and someone consistently underestimated as a Hollywood celebrity—whose personality attracted voters skeptical about his program. And after George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, some colleagues e-mailed me seeking academic postings in Canada, reporters wondered about the “blue” states seceding—I reminded them that the Civil War settled questions of secession – and many in the U.S. and abroad bemoaned “George Bush’s America” up until January 20, 2009, when it became “Barack Obama’s America” instantaneously.

Two members of the world’s select club of liberal democracies are having big weeks, with Israel’s election following America’s inauguration. Just as Mitt Romney’s disappointed followers had to overcome their loss, and reaffirm their faith in the democratic process and their President on Monday, Israel’s disappointed citizens and friends abroad should show equal grace—and perspective—now.

But Progressive reassurance should come from more than simply taking an I-won’t-be-a-sore-loser refresher course on democracy’s vicissitudes. Three distortions in the conversation about Israel have been developing for four years—and will be intensified by Tuesday’s election results. The first claims that “Israel” has gone right wing. The second asserts that Israeli democracy is endangered. And the third sets up American democracy as a Platonic ideal—when discussing Israel.

Yes, Benjamin Netanyahu is conservative, and despite stumbling will probably emerge as the next prime minister. Yes, he will then enact some policies that infuriate liberals. But just like Bush’s America only could transform into Obama’s because America’s liberal infrastructure remained strong from 2001 to 2009—and in many ways flourished in opposition—the liberal infrastructure remains strong in Israel, and may be set to flourish, especially thanks to Yair Lapid’s big win. Politically, the most prestigious newspaper, Haaretz, the leading academics, the powerful Supreme Court, the popular President, and other influential liberal voices will boost Israel’s left-center opposition, which did far better than expected this election.

Netanyahu lost power and prestige this election campaign, with barely 25 percent of Israelis supporting him. The three left-center parties—Shelly Yachomovich’s Labor, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Tzipi Livni’s Movement—together consistently outpolled the Netanyahu-Liberman alliance.

And Bennett truly is more Ronald Reagan than Ron Paul. Nahum Barnea, perhaps Israel’s sanest columnist, said Bennett’s strength came from broadcasting a sense of freshness and openness, along with having an army past, high-tech success, and American experience. Had the left united around one, effective, charismatic, Bennett-like leader, this election might have played out differently.

While outsiders judge Israel based on where it stands regarding the Palestinians, and how powerful the ultra-Orthodox appear, there are many other signs of its democratic vitality—and a leftward not rightward trajectory. Haaretz, no Netanyahu shill, recently publicized a poll reflecting the Israeli consensus belief in a two-state solution. Only outsiders who caricature Israel as a right-wing garrison state were surprised.

The campaign also confirmed most voters’ anger at ultra-Orthodox prerogatives, especially the draft exemption—which lapsed months ago, under Netanyahu’s rule and was not extended. Israel’s social protests demonstrated a widespread commitment to a more European style welfare state—as did many of the party platforms—suggesting economic and social policies that are far more liberal than America’s. And the live-and-let live lifestyle revolution sweeping the Western world is expanding the universe of tolerated behaviors, with women’s equality and gay rights increasingly assumed as givens.

Considering this left-leaning orientation, the defenses of Israeli democracy, Israeli dissent, and freedom of expression have been heated, hysterical, and effective. The many cries that Israeli liberties are threatened reveal just how vital the Middle East’s only democracy is, how strong the watchdogs are, and how little the authoritarians have accomplished. There is a worrying Knesset caucus of heavy-handed pols who don’t appreciate the poetry of democratic exchange or the need to nurture free, rollicking debate. But a rearguard action by true Ze’ev Jabotinsky-Menachem Begin liberal democrats like the Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, aided by the incumbent prime minister, among others, has constrained these Jewish Napoleons.

Meanwhile, many Americans’ lectures about Israel’s shortcomings condescendingly overlook American democracy’s challenges. Israel has no fiscal cliffs or Tea Parties, no radio personalities with Rush Limbaugh’s reach, no Fox-like or MSNBC-type TV stations. Many Americans fear some of their own governmental fissures and fragilities. Surveys showing faith in the Congress in single digits are well-earned but scary threats to democracy’s legitimacy. The media conversation is often demeaning and distracting; the blogosphere polarizing and infantilizing. Some challenges unite America and Israel in trying to manage a healthy modern democracy; some challenges reflect each country’s peculiarities. But there are challenges, headaches, and embarrassments aplenty for both.

I will not even abandon hoping for some progress these next few years from a new Netanyahu government, especially with Yair Lapid demanding progress. Non-ultra-Orthodox, non-Arab Israelis are fed up with being the “friers,” the suckers who work hard, serve in the army, and pay taxes. I also believe the relative quiet on the Palestinian front has soothed Israelis. This period may eventually be viewed as the time when the spectrum of opinion narrowed, as the consensus formed that a Palestinian state was not only inevitable but, under the correct conditions, desirable. Furthermore, the Palestinians still have a tremendous hold on Israeli politics. If a leader appears ready to negotiate seriously, compromise substantively, and progress dramatically, the Israeli political dynamic would change overnight.

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So don’t cry for me New York Jewry. Let’s get a little more perspective in the pages of the New Yorker and the New York Times. Reports of the death of the Israeli left, the Israeli center, or Israeli democracy truly are exaggerated, as the results showed. Israel is not the Titanic on the Mediterranean. It remains the old-new, start-up miracle, trying to build an exemplary society rooted in the best democratic and Jewish ideals, with the magical self-correcting mechanism, democracy, always at work.

I did not vote for Netanyahu, Bennett, or their conservative allies. But I am not willing to give up on the new government, let alone the complicated country they have to govern democratically, effectively, creatively.