Center Field: Israel, US need muscular moderates – not mealymouthed ones

Despite the contrasts distinguishing Israeli from American politics, these sister democracies face parallel problems.

July 2, 2019 20:45
Center Field: Israel, US need muscular moderates – not mealymouthed ones

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on the fateful night of May 29, when the Knesset dissolved itself and set September 17 as the date for new elections. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Last week, debating Democrats boosted US President Donald Trump’s reelection chances by playing to their party’s loony Left, (dis)missing the middle. Meanwhile, the Blue and White Party has been boosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by barely playing, (dys)functioning as the missing middle, so fearful of offending anyone, it bores everyone.

Despite the contrasts distinguishing Israeli from American politics, these sister democracies face parallel problems. In an age of politics-by-tweet, with all-too-brief sound bites weaponized into sound barks, politics is coarsened. And in an age of tribalization, both countries have spineless strongmen, bellicose blowhards who talk tough yet don’t lead.

Watch Trump, the Twitter tough-guy become Vladimir’s vassal, kowtowing to Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin, who keeps punching far above his weight geopolitically. Bombarding American democracy with lies and fake news is as serious as Iran’s downing of an unmanned drone. Alas, Trump tweets like a lion yet acts like a lamb around Putin – inexcusably excusing Russia’s inexcusable assault on American democracy.

Meanwhile, despite his many accomplishments, Netanyahu risks being remembered as another windbag nationalist. Bibi fiddles with the law as the South burns. What kind of a patriot allows so many Israelis to feel so abandoned? How much longer will Netanyahu tolerate Hamas’s “kite-tifada,” and how much longer before voters notice that Mr. Security has become Captain Insecurity – a leader most focused on avoiding incarceration at a minimum-security facility?

One would expect that Trump’s and Netanyahu’s foibles would make their rivals look 10-feet tall by comparison. There are some leaders who bring out the best in us, in the people around them, and in their opponents, too. Think of David Ben-Gurion mentoring Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan; opposing Menachem Begin; and shaping that founding generation of self-sacrificing immigrants, fighters and builders. Think of John F. Kennedy surrounding himself with his brother Robert, along with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson; opposing Richard Nixon; and shaping that “greatest generation” of hard-working veterans, patriotic citizens and stable, self-sacrificing parents.

By contrast, both Trump and Netanyahu seem to have a reverse Midas touch: They make subordinates and rivals look diminished and tarnished, triggering the worst in everyone. Both Trump and Netanyahu so dominate their parties, they reduce allies to yes-men and women. Note how many staffers leave Trump’s White House with their reputations besmirched; note how few Likudniks have the spine to stand up when their leader spends the pre-April campaign promising Netanyahu wouldn’t demand immunity – then waste all the coalition negotiations desperately pursuing the immunity he denied he’d demand.

But where are their rivals? Does Israel’s collective conscience really rest in Avigdor Liberman’s often mud-stained hands? Does the American republic’s stability and decency really stand on Joe Biden’s increasingly stooped shoulders? If American reporters were less left-leaning, they would have pilloried Biden as a Democratic Dan Quayle, another gaffe-prone vice president.

At the Democratic debate, Sen. Kamala Harris misread history and made Biden look like a mealy-mouthed moderate, rather than the rare Democratic presidential aspirant who understands that this election will be won – like the 2018 midterms – in the Center, not in far-left la-la-land.

Polls suggest that most of 2020’s Democratic presidential aspirants don’t represent the Democratic mainstream, let alone the American mainstream. Most Americans want to keep their private healthcare plans but are generous enough to want those who don’t have one to have a public option. Most Americans want to police their borders but are generous enough to want to treat immigrants decently. Too many Democratic candidates are flirting with a single-payer healthcare system and open borders, while telegraphing a suffocating super-woke political correctness that woos Twitter dummies but not the crucial swing state voters.

Biden sputtered amid Harris’s attack implying he was racist in opposing school busing. Biden needed to respond forcefully that in the 1970s only 9% of African Americans supported forced busing, just as two-thirds of African Americans in the 1990s supported Bill Clinton’s crime bill.

Biden must be prouder of his record, while more eloquent in explaining that experience includes updating and adjusting positions. Otherwise, he will replicate Jeb Bush’s meteoric 2016 plummet from obvious winner to embarrassing loser.

At least Biden is getting attention. Where the heck is Benny Gantz? Gantz let Avigdor Liberman dominate the coalition talks, emerging as non-ultra-Orthodox and fair-minded – Israel’s great champion. Another ex-general, Ehud Barak, upstaged Gantz last week. Centrists would be recalling Barak’s botched suicide-bombing-scarred premiership rather than seeking a new savior if Gantz and his “Three Amigos” led like the Fantastic Four rather than four phantoms.

It seems that some overpaid pollsters hatched this silly spectral strategy of being the missing moderates of summer in order to scoop up votes in September. It won’t work. Winning requires hand-to-hand, yet creative combat. Never bank on Bibi blowing it.

Clearly, something structural is afoot. The hysterical media and an aggressive Twitter-dumb populace reduce politics to tribal clashes showcasing bullies; demoralizing and eclipsing decent, moderate, thoughtful citizens – and candidates.

But the stakes are too high in Israel and America to mobilize marshmallow moderates who are mealy mouthed or missing. Both polities need muscular moderates – smart, strong, successful leaders, confident enough to acknowledge whatever good Netanyahu or Trump have done, while convincing the voters to move on. Both countries need leaders with healing, constructive, balanced, big-tent visions, and a politics that’s less angry, less vicious and less partisan.

Healthy democracies thrive when leaders lead from the Center rather than punch, manipulate and screech from the extremes – or duck for cover when the political fireworks begin. Israelis and Americans deserve real leaders.

The writer is author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. He is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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