What American Jews don’t understand about Israel

Israel has never played such a central – and polarizing – role in Jewish American life and politics.

Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is the ultimate football in the political and cultural life of American Jews, but it is increasingly clear that those same American Jews do not understand the most important rules of the game. 
Israel has never played such a central – and polarizing – role in Jewish American life and politics. On both the Right and the Left, Israel is treated as a symbol and abstraction, and is fashioned to reflect the highest hopes or darkest fears of whoever happens to be singing its praises or decrying its faults. From former president Barack Obama to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Donald Trump, the Jewish American center is not holding. 
Both sides are guilty of the same analytic mistake. They treat Israel as a monolithic entity and overlook the single most important factor in understanding where Israel is and where it might be going; its fragmented political system. If you want to change or save Israel, this is the place to start. Just as it is impossible to understand American politics without accounting for structural factors like constitutional constraints and an ineffectual Congress, so too, Israel’s most vexing controversies will remain frustrating mysteries if its fans and foes do not take its political ground-rules into account.
The first thing to understand about the Israeli political system today is that its parliamentary system results in fragile governing coalitions, as small parties with niche agendas often act as king makers with outsized sway. To form a government, a prime minister must establish and maintain a majority of at least 61 seats (out of 120) in the Israeli parliament-the “Knesset.” While this was never an easy feat, it has grown increasingly harder in recent years as ruling parties’ electoral power have shrunk.
In its early decades, until the 1996 elections, Israel’s ruling party always had at least 40 seats in the Knesset, with Golda Meir reaching an astounding 56 seats in 1969 and Menachem Begin’s Likud securing a formidable 48 seats win in 1981. Under these conditions, Israeli leaders were able to make difficult, risky and often unpopular decisions because they knew that voters had endowed them with the necessary political capital. For example, in 1978, when Israel signed the historical peace treaty with Egypt, Begin’s Likud held 43 seats in the Israeli parliament, and in 1993-1995, when Israel made peace with Jordan and inked the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority, Rabin’s Labor party owned 44 seats. Peace takes courage, but it also needs votes.
The situation today is undoubtedly different. Waves of immigration, repeated terrorist attacks, a series of failed peace processes and unilateral territorial withdrawals have polarized and fragmented Israeli society. Globalization and growing inequality have also taken a toll, as they have in the United States and Europe. As a result, since 2006, no ruling party has won more than 31 seats in the Knesset, and in 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, he did so on the basis of just 27 seats, less than a half of Golda Meir’s electoral achievement four decades earlier. When Netanyahu’s Likud won the 2015 elections with 30 seats, or a mere 25% of the votes, it was hailed, both domestically and internationally, as a “landslide victory.” In reality, it was a testament to how dysfunctional Israel’s political system has become.
Living in this fragmented reality and beset by profound regional instability, it is naive to expect Israeli leaders to repeat the historical achievements of their predecessors. Criticizing Israel as a monolithic entity, without realizing the impact of these internal processes and their constraints on Israel’s ability to execute strategic decisions, is a futile and misguided endeavor. Israel, despite its image, is still a vibrant democracy with a variety of voices. Americans can disagree with Israel’s political leadership. Israelis do – vociferously – as is reflected by its divided parliament and vocal civil society. However, Americans of every political persuasion would do better to connect with their counterparts in Israel and work together toward common goals and real change, rather than tilting at windmills of an Israel that exists only in their imagination. 
Ari Hoffman and Amit Itai are students at Stanford Law School.