There is an old American saying that the country is safest when Congress in on vacation.
It may have been spoken in American, but it applies to all western democracies.
Politics is the essence of civilization when viewed as the most acceptable way of settling disputes, first by arguing and then by voting.
However we enjoy or benefit from politics, we also have to pay the price of the lower side of the phenomenon. That is, when politicians posture, speak, and maneuver not for any intention of shaping public policy, but for the simpler goals of advancing themselves in anticipation of the next election.
Israel is currently in one of those periods, and Americans can expect two years of it when the Republican House and Senate come to Washington, most likely for the primary purpose of improving their own standing and that of their party's candidate in the election of 2016. Against them we can expect Barack Obama to use his rhetorical skills in a way to propose what he knows that Congress will not enact, for the prime purpose of doing what he can to put himself and perhaps his party in the best light possible.
Being a parliamentary system, Israel does not have a fixed date for national elections. Anytime within a four year maximum, the government or Knesset can act to bring about an election.
Currently there is a smell of election in the air, and politicians, led by the Prime Minister, are arguing about a number of meaningless issues. They all have high emotional content, but the chances of them passing through the hoops of the Knesset and--if passed and brought by a suit--then the Supreme Court are minimum in the extreme.
The issues talked about ("debated" would be describing a process too elaborate for current discussions) are a law identifying Israel as the country of the Jewish People, with our without advantages for its Jews as opposed to various minorities; and proposals to facilitate the punishment of families of individuals who have committed acts of terror.
There is also the perennial tirade about the cost of living, with competing personalities claiming to have reduced the cost of living, and accusing their opponents of acting to increase it.
We can argue about the merits of all the proposals and claims. It may be difficult, however, given the loud noises coming from the Knesset and the chatter of commentators on radio and television. Most agree that there is little chance of enacting and implementing anything that is significantly different from what we have now, but most also have an opinion either strongly supportive or opposed to one or another proposal, or just as assertively in favor of something a bit different from what has been said by others.
Shakespeare provided the theme of this note: Sound and fury signifying nothing.
What is behind all of this is the movement to the right of Israelis, due primarily to the recent rain of missiles from Gaza and the response of the IDF, and the wave of Palestinian violence that came after, primarily in Jerusalem.
My own assessment is that Barack Obama and John Kerry also had something to do with it, via their insistence on pressing Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate. Palestinians and Israelis recognized that no progress was likely, even while they were led by the context to speak in nasty terms about their adversaries. By forcing an issue that was hopeless, the Obama-Kerry team pushed something to the forefront that was bound to excite emotions, and be seen by Israeli and Palestinian politicians as an opportunity to score points, in ways that added to the excitement and incitement.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has an international reputation for extremism, but he is moderate in the Israeli context, and especially within his Likud Party. Currently he appears worried of losing control of Likud to young Turks who are significantly more right wing and less constrained by international pressures than he. So he is supporting nationalist themes of legislating what is already in the Declaration of Independence and known to all that Israel is a Jewish State; and upping the punishments of those who would act against it.
He appears to be considering either dismissing centrist elements in his government and trying to keep a government afloat by attaching to it the ultra-Orthodox parties, or going for a national election and expecting the right to do well and then creating a new government with Likud, Jewish Home (i.e., Bennett), Israel our Home (i.e., Liberman), and the ultra-Orthodox.
Or he may only be hinting at those possibilities, hoping to use the prospect of an election, which the polls are showing that Livni and Lapid would lose badly, to induce Livni and Lapid to be more cooperative and less critical of him. If Bibi can keep Tsipi, Yair, and their parties within his government, perhaps at the price of toning down or abandoning the nationalist proposals currently on the table, all may be willing to get along for another year or two.
The current Knesset is less than two years into its four year maximum. Netanyahu's government has managed to limp through several crisis as well as one war. A number of commentators are betting (none of them a great sum) that he will find a way through this crisis.
There are also commentators, some of them appearing in major western media, who claim that Israel is on the edge of fascism.
That bit of nonsense overlooks the underlying culture of Israeli Jews, our tolerance for dispute, a strong court system independent of politicians, and the concern of leading politicians for the constraints of international politics. One should not view the more extreme of the current proposals as anything more than thrusts and feints in political maneuvering, with little chance of shaping Israel's future.
Politics being what it is, not much else is being accomplished by the government and Knesset.
That is all right. There are enough laws already on the books to keep the country going. As we've known for a long time, most of the things proposed in this legislature or others (i.e., European parliaments and the US Congress) do not add much if at all to what is on the books, and the vast majority of proposals die somewhere in the procedures of the legislature.
The essence of government is departments and their professional personnel. They are not the mindless bureaucrats of the stereotypes, but include highly trained individuals who know how to act responsibly, perhaps moreso than several of the elected officials who may be their nominal superiors. There are also the courts, also staffed by professionals, with substantial independence of how the current batch of politicians are maneuvering.
It is too early to predict the details of the political circus Americans can expect from January onward. Among the items that may surface are Congressional-Presidential differences on Iranian sanctions, Senatorial resistance to Presidential appointments, and more than the usual trouble in enacting a national budget.
It is likely to be entertaining for those who like the noise of political squabbles, and not likely to be all that dangerous. Like Israel, the United States already has enough legislation in place for its departments and courts to deal with what must be dealt with.
Innovations--especially in a time of high political fever--are as likely to harmful as beneficial.
To rephrase the epigram that begins this note, countries may be best protected when their legislatures are tied up in the political knots created by their political maneuvering, and not able to do anything substantial.