Israel’s fragmented, dysfunctional politics heads towards elections, again
“Us versus them” identity politics and cultural wars crowd out a debate about the bigger picture
On a visit this past week to Israel, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, I saw up close the extreme discontent ordinary Israelis and Palestinians have with their politics. If you think America’s politics are sharply divided today, just take a look at what’s been happening within the politics of both the Israelis and Palestinians over the past decade plus.
These two peoples live under very different systems but suffer from one common affliction: the absence of healthy politics capable of building stable national coalitions responsive to the concerns of their people.
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Israel offers an important example in some of these trends in the world’s democracies. (I have a few more days of meetings in the West Bank and hope to gain more insights on that front; I’ll share some thoughts later this week on the Palestinian political situation as it now stands.) But as with most other things about Israel, it falls into a special category of all its own given its unusual situation and unique geographic location.
It’s déjà vu all over again in Israel’s politics
Israel is heading into its fifth election in three years on November 1st, and no one I talked with seems happy about that. Israeli political reporters talk about how miserable their jobs are these days, voters feel somewhere between gaslighted and disengaged, and politicians look like they’re going through the motions, in the interregnum between the end of summer vacations and a campaign pause for the Jewish holidays – all before a final sprint in October.
Israel has a complicated parliamentary system much different from America’s presidential and Congressional system of national government, and many experts have analyzed the structural strengths and weaknesses of the system. Between now and the November 1 elections, there will be no shortage of political commentary about who’s up and who’s down and which leader and party has the strongest pathway to building the next governing coalition.
The most expected outcome of this fifth election right now is a sixth election sometime in 2023, a sort of political insanity of doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome. This scenario is leading more and more voices to call for broad reform of Israel’s overall political system, calls that go nowhere because of the very national divisions that produce repeated electoral gridlock.
Sound familiar, America? It takes one to know one, as the saying goes.
In the broadest strokes, there are some similarities between Israel’s politics today and what’s going on in America’s politics:
1. To Bibi or not to Bibi? Politics remain focused on personalities, and one individual in particular. Heading into these fifth elections, the question that looms large is whether Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving controversial and deeply divisive former prime minister, will find a pathway back to power. Nicknamed Bibi, Netanyahu is a figure not unlike Donald Trump. Polarizing, seen by many as disrespectful of the rules and norms of a democratic system, indulgent of bigotry, Bibi possesses a magnetic capacity to dominate the debate in the way that Trump still does, at least within the Republican Party.
2. No country for big ideas and ideologies. Beyond this one individual, Israel’s politics increasingly appears identity-focused and centered on individual personalities rather than ideology or ideas. That’s a far cry from the politics of Israel’s past, when left and right offered contrasting approaches to Israel’s domestic economy and its foreign policy. Dahlia Scheindlin, Israeli political analyst, said earlier this month on the Haaretz podcast, “I don’t think we’re in an era of big, grand political, social visions that define which parties people vote for.”
The debates in building electoral coalitions for campaigning seem particularly devoid of big policy issues, an irony given all of the challenges and opportunities Israel faces. Instead, politics remain dominated by individual personalities and gossip rather than policy programs. The slight difference with America is that in the past year, Democrats have episodically offered a governing and political agenda based on ideas, in contrast to the GOP, as John Halpin recently pointed out.
But in the bigger picture, the old left-center-right political spectrums in both countries are in a state of discombobulation and disarray.
3. The institutions of democracy are under extreme strain. On this trip I heard echoes of the same problems America faces in its system, but perhaps the situation is even more dire here in Israel’s democracy: a weakened and politicized judiciary, a polarized media dominated by memes and spin without clinical analysis, and disarray within the existing political parties.
The political fragmentation of traditional parties, along with other factors such as a shift of the political spectrum to the right, seems to have opened up the pathway for more radical and extremist voices like ultranationalist Itamar Ben Gvir, a person with a past criminal conviction for racist incitement and anti-Arab views. The emergence of Ben Gvir as a possible leader in a future Israeli government, with backing from other extremist voices like Bezalel Smotrich, is worrisome. All of these dynamics should be cause for introspection, as Michael Koplow noted.
America faces similar strains on its democratic institutions and extremist political trends as well, but Israel’s challenges appear particularly acute.
4. Some smarter political thinkers and leaders sense an opening to build more inclusive politics. On the edges of this gloomy landscape are some efforts to promote greater political cohesion and unity inside of Israeli politics, just as there are in America today. There’s nothing new about this, except that these efforts are taking place against a dramatically changed backdrop of a national politics that seems to grow unhealthier by the moment.
The outgoing government had the backing of a diverse range of political figures, from deeply religious and conservative Jewish elements to Israeli Arab Islamists who prioritized efforts to make ordinary life better for their constituents. But that experiment didn’t last much longer than the previous three Israeli governments.
One former Israeli politician I met for coffee in Tel Aviv last week told me about the ongoing efforts to at least promote a bigger sense of inclusive allegiance to Israel, that transcends differences of identity and background, in a concept known in Hebrew but hard to translate accurately into English as “mamlakhti.” The basic idea is one of nonpartisan governance, a sense of civic duty that rises above the fray and gets things done.
It doesn’t seem that the upcoming elections will produce a pathway to creating a governing coalition with a steady and reliable majority public support in Israel, which seems to be heading into the same political and electoral spin cycle that Italy faced for years. In some early assessments as the campaign is just getting underway, the right has consolidated its ticket and strategy more cohesively than what amounts to what’s left of the center and left, but a month and a half is a lifetime in Israel’s election campaigns.
Israel’s politics today: missing an opportunity to seize opportunities
Israelis heard a warning about the unhealthy state of their democracy from one of the country’s top security chiefs this past month: he called it a national security threat exploited by Israel’s external adversaries. It’s a message that some Israeli political leaders have sent before, but the fact that it was coming for the security services caught some notice.
This is a challenge that America faces as well – the tribalism of America’s political debates is repeatedly exploited by America’s adversaries and competitors like Russia and China, and arcane foreign policy debates among America’s elite just confuse the public.
But beyond protecting itself from threats, this lack of unity in Israel’s politics prevents it from seizing the full potential of recent regional openings and opportunities to more deeply integrate itself with the rest of the region.
Last week, for instance, Israel marked and celebrated the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords, the deals that normalized ties between Israel on the one hand and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. How have these deals changed Israeli politics? Not much, given the thin gruel of an “us versus them” identity politics that dominates the country’s debates.
If anything, the regional deals have pushed to the Palestinian question even further to the sidelines in Israeli politics, but that’s probably only a temporary phenomenon. “Out of sight, out of mind” only lasts for so long when there are millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. In a strange way, the dysfunctions of Israeli politics and all the different voices have an oddly symbiotic relationship with a different set of dysfunctions that exist in Palestinian politics.
Israel stands between normalization and criminalization, as one Israeli analyst likes to say to people. The normalization trend is mostly blowing in from the east, from countries that for decades refused to recognize Israel as a country. The “criminalization” trend comes mostly from a variety of directions on the fringes of European and American politics, and it is mostly linked (or at least ostensibly) to Israeli-Palestinian dynamics.
But even this narrative ignores one hard reality: for Israel, the normalization and integration trend will hit a limit, and perhaps already has, if the Palestinian question continues to be ignored. No peace or normalization agreement with regional or global powers will last it’s built to circumvent Palestinian political aspirations the way that roads to Israeli settlements in the West Bank bypass Palestinian cities and villages.
The fact that these latest deals ignored the Palestinian question didn’t just anger the Palestinians, it also quite likely represents a ceiling on just how much Israel will be able to develop normal, open ties with other regional neighbors. On regular visits to the Arab Gulf during the past year, I’ve heard a consistent point on this score: we don’t like the Palestinian political leadership and this issue isn’t our priority, but we’re not going to move in major ways until there is some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
Therein lies the paradox at the heart of Israel’s politics today: at a time when Israel faces some genuine existential threats as well as transformational opportunities that could truly pull it into a new phase of its history, the country seems held back by the morass of its own politics.
Israel faces some big questions these days, but its current crop of political leaders may be too small to rise to the occasion. The election campaign underway provides an opportunity for someone to prove otherwise.
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