Center Field: Wanted- ‘Third Way’ new ideas countering Israel’s stale politics

Israeli politicians must stop acting like petty, graspy party bosses and start acting like true, expansive Zionist leaders – in ideas not just in name.

THEN-DEFENSE MINISTER Yitzhak Mordechai and then-Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani visit Israeli troops in combat gear near the northern border with Lebanon in 1999. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN-DEFENSE MINISTER Yitzhak Mordechai and then-Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani visit Israeli troops in combat gear near the northern border with Lebanon in 1999.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Bibi-sitter” ads got one thing right: This election feels juvenile.
Apparently I missed the memo, but it seems that politicians and reporters have agreed to make Israeli politics an idea-free zone. Focusing on the timbre of the opposition leader’s voice, the gap between the settlers’ leader’s front teeth, and the deposits redeeming the prime minister’s bottles prevents important discussions about the tone of the political debate, the gaps between rich and poor, as well as the intellectual, ideological, political and financial investments needed to redeem the Zionist dream.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of meeting Al From, Bill Clinton’s ideological guru. In 1985, frustrated by losing too many elections with stale liberal ideas, From founded the Democratic Leadership Council to start “an insurgency” inside the Democratic Party. From sought a “Third Way” between conservatives’ no-government selfishness and liberals’ big-government paternalism.
Fifteen years later, acknowledging From’s centrality in the quest to restore opportunity, community and responsibility in America, president Bill Clinton said, “It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had a more positive impact on the progress of American life in the last 25 years than Al From.”
Before I interviewed From about the Clinton years, From critiqued Israel’s political torpor. He tried launching a “DLC-like organization for the Kadima Party” from 2009 through 2012 with one of Ariel Sharon’s former advisors, Oren Magnezy. Unfortunately and all too typically Kadima leaders refused to articulate a “set of core principles around which to rally.”
From understands that Israeli politics feels stale because “the parties are so unstable and the politics is so personality driven.” It’s too easy for dissidents to bolt and launch new parties.
In Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party – and Tony Blair’s Labour Party – the system’s stability generated the necessary internal pressure. Bold reform requires “leaders who will fall on their sword for the movement and the cause,” From explains. Instead, Israeli “parties have no meaning – they are just convenient vehicles to run in a particular election.”
A liberal realistic enough to recognize Palestinian hostility, From realizes that security challenges frequently upstage reform attempts. He awaits “a new generation of leaders who believe that ideas should transcend personalities in a new politics.” They will need patience to “create a new playing field that over a couple of election cycles would reshape the political landscape.”
And they will need discipline and passion to focus on their “cause” and their “new ideas,” not just “positions on the hot day-to-day issues.”
Oren Magnezy, who now chairs The Laurus Consulting Group, is the kind of young, pragmatic visionary From seeks. “Elections in Israel are managed by spin doctors, and the politicians are trapped in that game,” Magnezy explains. From encouraged Israelis to approach political problems in “startup mode,” finding creative, “disruptive” workable solutions, regardless of ideological labels.
“We need a movement committed to finding new ideas and new approaches,” Magnezy explains.
It’s foolish “to keep doing the same thing again and again.” Magnezy wants reforms that are good “political” and “policy” moves, saying, “I’m not naïve, I want something that will actually work.”
Applied to Israel, the Third Way should help resolve the tensions between Ben-Gurion kibbutz socialism and modern start-up nation capitalism.
Israel is prosperous enough, and should be daring enough, to teach the other capitalist democracies how to create a thriving hi-tech-savvy information-age economy without excessive materialism and without vast wealth disparities.
Reinforcing our traditional-value commitments to family and community, we need policies that help entrepreneurs succeed without abandoning citizens who don’t. Someone like Erel Margalit, Labor’s kibbutz-born venture capitalist-philanthropist extraordinaire who sees Israel as a “hub,” not a fort, could lead Israel on this new path.
Israel also needs a Third Way regarding the Palestinian problem.
“If you don’t think we have a problem and the status quo is sustainable, fine,” says Magnezy. “I think we need a new narrative, and the solution is out there, there is still a way to create a viable Palestinian state, or at least minimize Israel’s role in Palestinians’ daily lives.”
For too long Right and Left have been snared in the same debate, each imprisoned by their respective delusions. Rightists pretend a Western democracy can control 2.5 million unwilling non-citizens, with no consequences. Leftists pretend Israel hasn’t made concessions to the Palestinians, overlooking the often deadly consequences of the Oslo Peace Process, the Southern Lebanon withdrawal and the Gaza disengagement.
As long as the Right insists on keeping most of the land occupied by millions of Palestinians, there will be war; long as the Left insists on ignoring so many Palestinians’ exterminationist calls, there won’t be peace.
Both sides must imagine the day after, what new challenges would emerge from a new configuration.
Someone like Michael Oren, the super scholar-diplomat turned Koolanu Party candidate who wants to move beyond the West’s treaty obsession and instead shape new Middle Eastern realities, self-protectively, humanely, strategically, even if unilaterally, should lead Israel on this new path.
Israel did briefly have a party called The Third Way, led by Yom Kippur War hero Avigdor Kahalani who broke away from Labor to found it. The party won four seats in the 1996 elections but failed to pass the electoral threshold three years later. As party leader, Kahalani used to quip: In politics there is a Left side and a Right side and Suicide – the middle road.
Israeli politicians must stop acting like petty, graspy party bosses and start acting like true, expansive Zionist leaders – in ideas not just in name.
They should be anchored in the “four Mems”: Masoret, tradition, synthesizing old and new ideas in this modern world; Moledet, homeland, expressing an unabashed patriotism and an unreserved readiness to defend this state in a hostile neighborhood; Mussar, ethics, emphasizing the moral as well as the pragmatic dimension in decision- making; and Mishpacha, protecting Israeli families while cultivating not just a sense of responsibility and community but true kinship and solidarity in this small, fledgling Jewish state.
If you don’t like this way, come up with your own way – let the ideological debates begin!
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history. His next book, to be published in September, looks at how Bill Clinton invented the 1990s.