Quiz: what do insults, threats of violence, demons of divisiveness, Nazi analogies, genies, and toothpaste have in common? Once they pop out – it’s hard to shove ‘em back in.
Last week marked a low moment in Zionist history. America’s secretary of state felt compelled to lecture Israel’s leaders about building consensus to protect democracy. Don’t blame Antony Blinken for that humiliation: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are most guilty of assailing Israeli democracy and rattling everyone’s nerves with their ruthless, absolutist approach to delicate constitutional arrangements. Meanwhile, their overwrought, doom-and-gloom, civil-war-threatening critics also help Israel look like a Banana Republic by claiming it has become one – when it hasn’t, far from it.
Where are the grown-ups? Where are the muscular moderates: vigorous, truly-nationalist politicians, rabbis, intellectuals, business leaders, and celebrities, in the middle – willing to help us calm down, wise up, and work together to face our common problems – and common foes?
Fortunately, the Israeli street is far more reasonable than its wrecking-ball-in-chief, or the sky-is-falling chicken liberals. The latest Israeli Democracy Institute poll shows 43% disliking the proposed judicial overhaul, with 31% supporting it. Most important, 64% desire “dialogue between the different political camps... in an attempt to reach compromise.” This silenced super-majority has sought negotiation and conciliation for years. Similarly, a majority consistently supports the Supreme Court’s power to override Knesset laws.
Clearly, most Israelis remain anchored, patriotic, democratic, and moderate, craving statesmanship. These polls should bolster our muscular-moderate-in-chief, President Isaac Herzog. He keeps championing moderation, mediation, and a middle ground.
Those of us rejecting the Right’s bleatings and the Left’s hysterics, now have a mechanism to support President Herzog and condemn extremism. Sign the JPPI’s – the Jewish People Policy Institute’s – constructive centrist petition. Reject civil war talk and governing-by-fiat. Say “No to coercion and violence, yes to dialogue,” at www.israelistalknow.org.
This symbolic first step must be followed by mass outbreaks of courage and grace, from top to bottom. We need brave leaders and citizens to violate both extremes’ “you’re-completely-with-me-or-you’re-evil” hyper-partisanship. Risk cancellation on social media and social ostracism by acknowledging complexity and demanding deliberation. All of us should be big-hearted and open-minded enough to find people who voted the wrong way last election and talk to them – actually, listen to them.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and MK Simcha Rothman, who chairs the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee – should respect this patriotic, silenced super-majority.
Netanyahu and Rothman must stop pointing to the harshest critics who reject dialogue, or impose preconditions on negotiations to avoid the dialogue most Israelis demand. It’s a cheap ploy. Ignoring the middle because zealots screech louder, shirks their responsibility to govern responsibly.
Admittedly, the Right won the election, mocking all coup d’etat claims. And the Right has won the judicial reform argument – so why are they acting like losers? More Israelis today acknowledge the need for some court reform. That represents a massive shift in the conversation – against judicial overreach.
Real conservative leadership knows this is a bad idea
GENUINELY CONSERVATIVE leadership – committed to conserving institutions, legitimacy, values, and sanity – would understand that pushing too many fundamental changes too quickly backfires. It roils the Israeli street, makes Israel look weak to its enemies and undemocratic to its friends, while condemning any reforms to be canceled the minute the opposition wins.
Thoughtful, strategic governance would distinguish between policies which change from coalition to coalition; constitutive power arrangements which should be modified carefully; and basic rights, which are inherent and enduring. Wise leaders would also understand that democratic legislation involves back-and-forthing, ceding some concessions to opponents to maintain social peace. This rush to reform is blurring it all – and driving everybody crazy.
Score some quick wins on more policy-oriented questions – such as making internal legal opinions offered to ministers advisory not binding. Enjoy some victory laps. But leave something on the table. On the biggest constitutional questions – especially how to select Supreme Court justices and how to override laws, learn from McKinsey and Company’s super-consultants: “Slow down to speed up.”
Only weaklings and bullies think deliberation and compromise reflect weakness, not strength. Pursuing the most fundamental changes deliberately, can build the consensus Blinken advised. In this effort, President Herzog’s stature and vision are assets for the court-busters, not obstacles. Herzog’s intervention could make whatever changes that do pass, more widely-supported and long-lasting.
For decades, Netanyahu has built a dual legacy. It seems he wants his epitaph to read: “He Made Israel Stronger and He Warned the World About Iran.” Those should remain his priorities. Right now, it seems like the celestial power in Back to the Future that starts erasing Marty’s siblings, is replacing the word “stronger” with “weaker.”
And precisely when demonstrators are pummeling Iran’s regime and Israel should be spurring the West to crush the mullahs, Netanyahu’s recent actions seem to have the same celestial editor expanding the second part to read: “He Warned the World About Iran – Until He Got Indicted and Distracted.”
Israel cannot afford to be splintered by a prolonged, ugly, intramural fight about democracy. We need to revive the economy, resist terrorism, fight crime, and undermine Iran. Netanyahu’s failure to advance that agenda so far, makes Simcha Rothman’s role essential.
By slowing things down, by following President Herzog and respecting the silenced super-majority, Rothman can make history. He can save Bibi from himself, save Israel from this chaos, and save the court from its occasional excesses – in the long-term, rather than mugging the court and short-circuiting democracy for a quick, far-too-costly, short-lived win.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).