Center Field: Israel’s a watermelon democracy, not a banana republic

Watermelon democracies and their critics sometimes become so obsessed with the tasteless pits that we forget the surrounding wonders.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert [file] 370 (photo credit: Reuters / Pool)
Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert [file] 370
(photo credit: Reuters / Pool)
Yes, we discovered yet again last week, Israel is no banana republic. The term originally described the corporate brigands who monopolized fruit and other natural resources to bully Latin America. Today, banana republics are countries plagued by corruption and ministerial prerogative, where arrogant rulers believe their public service entitles them to reap private gains and play petty power politics. It is a sign of democratic health when a judge sentences a former prime minister to jail for taking bribes, and two coalition partners risk their standing to stop the incumbent prime minister from subverting the state’s governing infrastructure by eliminating the presidency because he dislikes his party’s leading candidate.
Both Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu deserve the Richard Milhous Nixon “Tricky Dick” Award for Shady Shenanigans that Undermine Democracy. Olmert merits the Lifetime Ignominious Achievement Award, while Netanyahu’s may have been a one-time lapse.
Multiple indictments suggest that Olmert’s crime spree lasted for years. Olmert’s political ascent and moral descent parallels that of some liberal reformers in New York and elsewhere who began as Sixties idealists but succumbed to the political clubhouse’s corruption. Their altruistic origins made their falls particularly upsetting.
Similarly, Olmert grew up in a Jabotinskyite household, with noble values about “hadar,” bringing glory to all you do. Entering politics as an idealistic outsider, over the years he epitomized the Israeli pol gone wrong, swaggering, cigar-smoking, enveloped in allegations of corruption, taking envelopes stuffed with cash when he wasn’t double-billing or – in a sweet Israeli touch – taking bribes for his roguish brother along with an ultra-Orthodox co-defendant who took bribes for his lovely charity.
Netanyahu’s offense is more uncharacteristic. Whatever mistakes he may have made in office, he has repeatedly protected Israeli democracy and the rule of law. Especially during his last term, Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Likud “princes” like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin heroically and repeatedly squelched various Likud backbenchers’ attempts to restrict civil liberties.
I was, therefore, genuinely surprised and frankly disgusted to see the prime minister make a last-minute attempt to eliminate the Israeli presidency because he dislikes the Likud favorite, Reuven Rivlin. When Franklin Roosevelt, after his 1936 landslide victory – dwarfing Netanyahu’s small win in 2013 – tried packing the Supreme Court, the American people defended their Constitution by repudiating the move. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid were similarly correct – and conservative in the best sense of the word – in resisting this scheme to change a fundamental Israeli governing arrangement out of personal pique.
This aborted assault on Israeli democracy may be the most petty, despicable move of Netanyahu’s political career – because had he succeeded, he would not merely have angered partisans as he frequently does, he would have made Israel look like a banana republic lacking stability, maturity and legitimacy. That the prime minister was foolish enough to allow such an outrageous and embarrassing assault on Israeli governance to become public knowledge makes me doubt his judgment – and wonder whether anyone around him has the wisdom and standing to save their boss from himself when he blunders.
Rather than being a banana republic, Israel is a “watermelon democracy” – like other successful democracies.
Just as watermelons have hardy structures and tough rinds, we don’t easily change basic governing arrangements like president as head of state, prime minister as head of government.
Watermelons, like democracies, are delicious inside but delicate – consent of the governed, rule of law, civil society and civil liberties are sweet gifts. But these arrangements are fragile and can be ruined through corruption, demagoguery, dictatorial power, lack of faith – pits (or pips) which must be spit out for the experience to be succulent.
While recognizing corrupt pols as pits who must be expelled from public life, I nevertheless wonder whether President Shimon Peres should grant Olmert a presidential pardon if Olmert confesses his crimes and retires from public life. True, everyone should be equal before the law.
But all the post-sentence talk about how to continue protecting an incarcerated former prime minister who knows every significant state secret made me wonder whether Israel is mature enough to debate an Olmert pardon and resilient enough to see it granted on these practical grounds.
When President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974 to avoid the specter of a former president going to jail, Americans were furious. By 2006, when Gerald Ford died, most Americans hailed his courageous, visionary statesmanship for helping America heal from Watergate.
Watermelon democracies and their critics sometimes become so obsessed with the tasteless pits that we forget the surrounding wonders. Amid all the mean-spirited, often-idiotic laments about the demise of Israeli democracy, like The New York Times’ recent op-ed howler claiming Israel is becoming less like the US while Iran is becoming more like America, few critics stopped to praise Israel for demonstrating such democratic vitality.
Still, this week ended well, despite the failings of our past two prime ministers. The thrill of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s European basketball championship, the fun of another Lag Ba’omer bonfire-fest, the exhilaration of welcoming nearly 600 Montreal Mega Mission participants to Jerusalem, and the inspiring, altruism-laced grit of the Australian ultra-marathon runner Pat Farmer provided perspective.
Farmer ran from Lebanon through Jordan to Israel and the territories, “threading” the region together with his footsteps, reminding us all that this is the land of hope.
It is too easy to get cynical about political machinations and peace process breakdowns. Farmer’s two-week, 1,500 kilometer gesture, hosted by my friend Danny Hakim’s Budo for Peace project, stressed the buoyancy of Israel’s watermelon democracy – and, we hope, spread seeds of peace, democracy and optimism to fight the cynicism that sometimes comes from fighting our enemies – and sometimes from watching our leaders.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history, including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video!