In an increasingly interconnected world, the United States and Israel are often regarded as the gold standard of bilateral relationships. Promoting democratic freedoms, enabling competitive markets, and collaborating closely across a wide range of fields, the two allies boast a wide range of “shared values and interests” to which they are beholden.
Here’s another thing both countries now have in common: grossly dysfunctional politics.
Eyes are transfixed on Washington as the U.S. Congress conducts spirited hearings to determine whether President Donald Trump has committed offenses that warrant his removal from office. Governing, meanwhile, seems low down on the list of priorities for the nation’s lawmakers, many of whom are absorbed with campaigning prodigiously to win the renewed favor of their constituents next November. The climate is raucous and divisive, leading some to doubt the Republic’s continued viability as a unified entity—never mind that assorted arms of the Executive Branch are wont to broadcast contradictory statements of record.
Israel’s predicament is equally disheartening. Back-to-back elections this year produced no obvious victor—both the incumbent (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and his primary challenger (former IDF Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz) failed to cobble together a new ruling coalition. The Jewish state now stands before the nightmare of an unprecedented third ballot within the fleeting span of 12 months. The interim void is being filled by an outgoing, transitional government with scaled-back faculties. A distraught Israeli electorate faces the genuine possibility of a stalemate that could extend deep into 2020, with polls forecasting similarly inconclusive results from a repeat vote in which an embattled Netanyahu would endure, hypothetically, at the helm of his Likud party.
“Democracies on the verge of a nervous breakdown” was the poignant diagnosis rendered by two participants in last month’s Halifax International Security Forum who argued that the prevailing sentiment at the meeting—attended by a cross-section of the world’s foremost officials and pundits—was a consuming fear not of foreign adversaries, but of sinister enemies within. Israel offers a compact laboratory for studying the spread of this political pathogen, whose various strains are infecting civil discourse and the honorable exercise of representative authority in the West.
Though Israel appears divided from afar, the outlook of its citizens is rather sanguine. This year’s World Happiness Report ranked Israelis in 13th place among 156 surveyed populations with regard to the quality of their lives. A precarious security environment and other challenges notwithstanding, the people of Israel give the impression of being largely content with their personal and collective lots. Economic prosperity, a series of diplomatic triumphs, and a period of relative safety meant that the 2019 campaigns saw very little debate over substantive issues. The dividing line between the candidates lay elsewhere.
Famous for the grand ideological battles of its past—Likud vs. Labor, hawks vs. doves, capitalists vs. socialists—Israel has, by many indications, discarded that earlier paradigm. What persists nonetheless among a vocal majority of citizens are allegiances to particular blocs and their acknowledged leaders. This form of identity politics, grounded less in policy than in personality, has generated the “hung jury” which stands to be reconvened soon in another election, after last-ditch efforts to craft a compromise meet with failure. (The exception which proves this rule about Israeli tribalism taking precedence over pressing operational affairs is the excessive attention devoted by rival parties to limited matters concerning the country’s fragile religion-and-state balance, a core component of subjective identity if ever there was one.)
Evidence of this paradigm shift was palpable last January, when Benny Gantz launched his bid to unseat Netanyahu. Character, not practical disagreements, took center stage. “Thanks for your service for ten years,” the would-be Prime Minister tipped his hat complimentarily to the sitting one, “[but] we’ve got it from here.” In fact, much of Gantz’s talk was fairly standard boilerplate—pledging not to relinquish the Golan Heights to Syria, guaranteeing that a united Jerusalem would always remain Israel’s capital, saber-rattling against a malicious Iranian regime—and also consistent with Netanyahu’s own philosophy. Rather, it was Netanyahu’s alleged indiscretions and the acrimony that he has sowed among varied sectors of Israeli society that Gantz assailed relentlessly. (The Prime Minister was indicted subsequently on multiple counts of corruption, including bribery and fraud.) Spin doctors from Netanyahu’s camp have insisted that the objections of Gantz and his cohort to sharing power with the Likud amount to nothing more than a petty “personal” veto of Netanyahu, amplifying the turn from ideology to personality.
This alternate reality has contaminated Israel’s public square. A space once renowned for its robust and nuanced discussion of how best to improve the nation’s welfare is now little more than a popularity contest. The political process has devolved into a simplistic, binary choice—Bibi, yes or no—with the platforms of parties contending for seats in parliament reduced to whether or not they will support Netanyahu’s leadership.
The lack of consensus on this singular question bears no small degree of responsibility for the current paralysis of governance. The dynamic is similar to the one now at work in America, where the figure of Donald Trump has effectively eclipsed most other measures of his performance.
Intense polarization, indigenous not only to Israel and the United States, has made it all but impossible to restore confidence in the establishment. Deploying almost hackneyed distinctions between Left and Right as straw-men—the positions of the anchor Likud and Blue-White factions are indistinguishable from each other on many key markers—more cynical Israeli politicians camouflage their self-interest with principle, rallying the masses to action under false pretenses. Netanyahu’s cries that he is the innocent victim of a larger conspiracy to “topple the Right” fit comfortably into this rubric, as does Trump’s conflation of accusations against his person with “an assault on America.” The visceral hostility of Netanyahu’s demographic base (centered among Israel’s more religious, right-wing, geographically peripheral and less affluent populations) toward the “elites” who run Israel supposedly has provided a fertile environment to stoke class resentment. Think Trump’s masterful exploitation of Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate “deplorables” quip.
This no-holds-barred, scorched earth strategy is undermining the legitimacy of storied agencies in both the United States and Israel. Modern technology is a potent device in this crusade, with social media like Twitter supplying a force multiplier. No institution is above reproach, but as faith crumbles in the pillars of Israeli and American democracy, it becomes ever more difficult to preserve internal order and cohesion.
The bank of targets for this onslaught is rich. Echoing Trump’s familiar refrain that he is prey to “the Greatest Witch Hunt in American History,” Netanyahu is proclaiming that he too has been railroaded by a politically orchestrated “witch hunt.” Under this shared banner, both have inveighed incessantly against law enforcement, each demanding to “investigate the investigators,” thereby signaling that the courts and the police are not to be trusted or obeyed; both have pursued expansive immunity from prosecution. The civil service that Trump has demonized openly as the “deep state”—a deliberately provocative label for the bureaucracy which oversees the vital and methodical functions of public life—has also been subjected to unbridled attack; Netanyahu has implied that officers of his own government are involved in staging “an attempted coup.” National solidarity is eroded further when the Prime Minister and the President lash out against the mainstream media for disseminating “fake news,” dispatching Israelis and Americans into hermetic echo chambers where they are fed a steady diet of tailored truth. Trump’s “Fake News Equals the Enemy of the People!” calculus injects an exceptionally dangerous element into this toxic mix.
Israel’s governability crisis also stems from structural anomalies within the country’s own system. A qualifying electoral threshold of 3.25 percent lowers the bar for numerous splinter factions to gain entry into parliament, making for an undisciplined legislature. Nine different lists of candidates—some of them running as amalgams of multiple lists themselves—have seated members in the current Knesset, with the smallest slate representing less than 200,000 eligible voters. Diffuse centers of gravity make it difficult to coalesce around bills and decisions that correspond to the interests of a broad spectrum of Israeli society.
This obstacle to effective administration is compounded by the constraints of governing through coalition. With larger parties having to satisfy the sectarian interests of smaller ones in order to secure majorities, control transfers disproportionately to these satellite groups, which wield coveted “spoiler” rights. With the tables thus reversed, it is often a minority of Israelis whose will is performed, much to the chagrin of the majority. Exemptions for Ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not wish to report for military service in the IDF are a classic example of this incongruity.
It is said, only half-jokingly, that there is no accountability in Israel, where politicians hide behind party slates. Israelis cannot “write their member of Congress,” because no politician answers directly to constituents of a defined district. Candidates for office are selected either by party bosses—evoking images of smoky Tammany Hall-style backrooms—or through closed party primaries, and so they have only these audiences to impress. Fulfilling the desires and concerns of the wider public has modest bearing on the political futures of Israel’s elected proxies.
The present alignment has left Israelis with dwindling confidence in the capacity of their leaders. Numerous senior appointments remain frozen until after a new government can be sworn-in—the Israel Police has been under the command of an acting commissioner for over a year already. (Unlike the United States, Israel does not submit these officials for formal confirmation hearings, where partisan wrangling commonly determines their fate.)
A bigger worry is that partisanship is infecting decisions about national security. Netanyahu’s promise in September that he planned to extend Israeli sovereignty to areas such as the Jordan Valley raised eyebrows. The proximity of his announcement to that month’s vote disclosed a suspicious willingness to suddenly advocate policies he had eschewed during the previous decade of his premiership. Netanyahu’s motives were called into question yet again when he entrusted Israel’s Ministry of Defense to someone he had once called “childish,” and its Ministry of Justice to a junior backbencher. He has also voiced enthusiasm for a joint defense pact with the United States, an idea that is controversial among Israel’s top security practitioners and analysts.
These frictions come at an inopportune juncture for Israel. Tenuous quiet on its borders is still pierced by sporadic missile fire from both Gaza and Syria. The more serious menace posed from Tehran continues to escalate, amid mounting consternation in Israel that the United States—which abandoned its Kurdish allies to fend for themselves in Syria and then offered slight response to the bombing of oil fields in Saudi Arabia—will not step up to the plate and join in confronting Iranian belligerence. Israel’s caretaker management, meanwhile, is incapable even of shepherding a national budget, amid projections of growing deficits.
Futile attempts by President Reuven Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, and others to forge a so-called National Unity Government belie what may be irreconcilable differences between the protagonists. Israelis, in their desperation to avoid an expensive and superfluous election that resolves nothing, were primed to accept a compromise between Netanyahu and Gantz. But the roughly even split among the electorate will not disappear automatically. Fifty-fifty, after all, doesn’t mean each voter is halfway between the Likud-led bloc and its opposition on the Israeli political spectrum. Rather, it means that disparate voters wanted their preferred candidates to win a full 100 percent of the ballot—and their rivals to come up empty-handed. No miracle of a unity coalition will seal overnight the long-entrenched fault lines within Israeli society.
None of this is to say that the apocalypse is a foregone conclusion. Leaders pass from the stage, and time can heal rifts. Blue-White, for instance, claimed that it will not hesitate to form a government together with the Likud if Netanyahu is removed summarily from the equation. Rumblings have also been triggered within the Likud, where former Education Minister Gideon Saar has thrown down a gauntlet, charging that Netanyahu—whose morality Saar has been cautious not to deprecate—is chronically unable to lead the Likud to victory and should thus be replaced. Saar’s logic has not fallen on deaf ears among the party faithful, who are fearful of losing their grip on power and its privileges.
Israelis attest to being happy with their circumstances partly because of their successful track record at extracting themselves from tough situations and building a thriving democracy under perilous conditions. “We survived Pharaoh, we’ll survive this too,” is a common adage in Israel. But, sadly, the country’s experience with governance may get worse before it gets better.