Since 1791, Georgetown, Delaware, population 6422, has celebrated “Return Day” two days after Election Day. The delay reflects the time it used to take to tabulate the election returns, hence the name. Today, winners and losers still patriotically parade together in horse-drawn carriages and antique cars, honoring America’s democratic unity, as local party leaders literally bury a hatchet in sand. Unfortunately, in Israel’s famously-fragmented democracy, as Election Day ends, Coalition Demolition Derby begins. Winners and losers haggle for political payoffs and plum jobs. Rather than burying the hatchet, party leaders sharpen their knives.
Underlying this political free-for-all, Israel faces profound political dilemmas. Perhaps today, as the ballots are freshly counted and before the coalition-building heats up, we can pause to consider some challenges the next government must face coolly and rationally yet boldly and creatively, despite the media circus and political haggling.

The new coalition should forge a new Zionist covenant between Israel and its citizens. Too many Israelis have become disillusioned, depressed, or overwhelmed by Israel’s problems. Even though I disagreed with many of the solutions proposed, I welcomed 2011’s social protests (remember them??). They tried resurrecting Zionism’s can-do spirit of pragmatic idealism; of state-building through problem-solving. Despite calling itself “nationalist,” Netanyahu’s government offered an unwelcome antidote to that youthful optimism, with its can’t-do spirit of cynical defeatism; the Zionist Union promised a proactive, constructive Zionism. Israel faces complicated domestic dilemmas, embracing modernity while cherishing tradition, maintaining its Jewish character while respecting democracy, remaining a Values Nation as well as a Start-Up nation, facilitating economic growth so individuals can soar without leaving fellow citizens in misery.

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Some of these challenges vex all modern capitalist democratic economies: America also struggles with the shift from a manufacturing economy that created a mass, broadly prosperous middle class decades ago to a high tech information age economy that has so far been best at producing the very, very rich and the very, very overextended. Even though many liberal American Jews like to pretend when lecturing Israel about church-state relations or democratic practices that America has solved all its dilemmas while inferior Israel hasn’t, perennial tensions in the Western world pit religious sensibilities against individualist impulses, populist input against government efficiency, a solid, traditional, moral order against a liquid, modern, libertine society. “Third Way” leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and their advisors, especially the strategist Al From and the pollster Stanley Greenberg, should be consulted regarding how synthesizing tradition and innovation, cultural change with political programs, can reconcile some of these ongoing tensions.

Of course, other dilemmas are peculiar to the Jewish State. The challenges of integrating two overwhelmingly ambivalent, often pre-modern, sometimes hostile, population groups, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab sector, into mainstream Israeli society economically and politically, while respecting their cultural and social distinctiveness, is daunting. Leaders must remember: Israel is not America, equality is not sameness, all citizens must share certain communal responsibilities, and group distinctiveness never justifies individual discrimination.

While Israel shares some church-state dilemmas with the US and other (still) God-fearing democracies, Judaism’s centrality in this State’s DNA sharpens many tensions. So-called secular Israelis – many of whom are more traditional than they realize – should realize how much that Jewish dimension enhances the state’s character and learn to explain the majority’s right to express itself culturally in public, as long as it treats its minorities with political and economic dignity. Simultaneously, many religious Israelis – especially the Israeli rabbinate – must learn that to spread religion in the modern world, less is often more: less government imposition and heavyhandedness can encourage more voluntary, lasting, mass observance.

Yes, Israel also faces serious, existential challenges in defending itself from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Fatah, among others, all of whom dream of Israel’s destruction. Too many “Security First” types forget that Israel must be strong domestically to face these external threats most effectively, just as too many “Peace Now” types forget that most major concessions to the Palestinians have encouraged more demands and increased violence, not lessened it. Israel should regain the initiative as the peace-seeker without falling into the trap of peace-making without peace partners.

Solving all these problems requires the creativity of an Albert Einstein, the sensitivity of an Elie Wiesel, and the generosity of a Charles Bronfman. Instead, alas, this government offered the rigidity of a Benjamin Netanyahu, the sensitivity of an Avigdor Lieberman and the generosity of a Miri (immigrants-are-cancer) Regev. We can do better, we must do better.

These dilemmas, after an election emphasizing the high cost of living and housing, the corruption epidemic, those who don’t serve not those who do, the enemies surrounding us and the peace stalemate depressing us, among other headaches, can be misleadingly gloomy. Every country, like every business, has assets and debits. And democracies specialize in generating dilemmas, just as dictatorships specialize in squelching them.

Let’s not forget Israel’s many strengths. They include: a well-educated and famously ingenious population; high rankings on the international happiness scale; a perpetual baby boom with an astonishingly high rate of births into intact couples and families at a time when America and Europe are witnessing epidemics of single-motherhood; a Zionist sense of communal mission and nationalist idealism; and, democracy, that redemptive, rollicking, frustrating, amazing, self-correcting mechanism, on display in today's free elections as ballots trump bullets, yet again.

Israel’s miracles have become so commonplace we take them for granted, while both internally and externally the distorted delegimitizing lens magnifies every problem into a crime against humanity or an existential threat. Delaware’s Return Day reminds us of democracy’s fragility and the magic required to make it work – even amid the next, depressing rounds of Coalition Demolition Derby, leading to more challenging rounds of government problem-solving, bold leadership and national renewal – we hope!


Gil Troy, Professor of History at McGill University is teaching at Hebrew University's Rothberg School this semester. His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press this October. @GilTroy


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