Let the lion lie with the lamb

Minimal Israeli national unity, or simple political sanity, must override a pull toward the extremes.

Published in The Jerusalem Post, Erev Pesach, March 26, 2021.

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Cartoon credit: Eran Wolkowski, Haaretz

Almost any way you slice it, this week’s apparent election result would seem to be a recipe for even-more-prolonged political deadlock. Unless the lion learns to lie down with the lamb.

Unless the Islamists of Raam can lie with the “Hardal-ists” of Religious Zionism, Binyamin Netanyahu has no government.

Unless the left wingers of Meretz and Labor can lie with the right wingers of Yamina, the anybody-but-Bibi camp has no government.

Unless the Ultra-Progressives and the Ultra-Orthodox can learn to compromise on matters of religion and state (big brouhahas are coming over conscription to the army, conversion, gay rights, and Shabbat commerce), there will be no long-term stable government of any type. The Supreme Court will see to that.

Unless Netanyahu learns to tolerate and even respect Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar – not to mention Nir Barkat and Avi Dichter – the right wing will wither. Netanyahu’s trials will see to that.

Unless all Israel’s current crop of mediocre politicians learn to set aside their personal pork barrel projects and come together on an austerity state budget (to pay down enormous coronavirus debts, invest in the core economy, strengthen the health system, and bolster the military), any new government will swiftly fall, and elections again automatically kick in. A fifth election within two years!

So indeed, unless the wolves, leopards, and lions learn to lie down with the lambs, goats, and calves – Israel is doomed to continued government dysfunction. To paraphrase Isaiah 11:6, perhaps it will take a little child to lead them – meaning a leader with a completely fresh mentality.

“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

In short, Israeli politics is entering a new era where divisions on matters of social, economic, religious, and security policy inevitably must take a back seat to the urgent business of basic governance – even as Israelis continue to disagree on core ideologies. Minimal national unity, or a simple sense of political sanity, must override a pull towards the extremes.

THE NITTY-GRITTY political party analysis of who’s up and who’s down that fills Israeli newspapers this week, and probably will do so for many weeks to come, is all beside the point.

It is not truly important whether Netanyahu is considered successful (because he crushed Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar and boosted Betzalel Smotrich) or a failure (because Likud dropped from 36 to 30 seats and Netanyahu’s camp again failed to achieve a clear majority in Knesset).

It is not truly important whether Meirav Michaeli is considered successful (because she saved the Labor Party from total oblivion) or a failure (because Labor remains embarrassingly far from its historic high of 40+ seats).

The same is true for Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beteinu, and Mansour Abbas’ Raam parties. It is not truly important whether they are considered victors or losers of the tiny factions they lead. Or how well positioned they are to be swing power players in coalition building. Or whether their splinter, “atmosphere” parties will be around to contest a next election.

What is important is what realistic ideas they bring to a government table leading to reasonable policy and governance, not endless discord. And whether they are willing to maturely lie down with the other lions and lambs to get there.

What is important is whether they see the opportunities ahead (for example, in developing Israel’s diplomatic ties with Gulf states) and can contribute to Israel’s diplomacy.

What is important is whether they see the defense dangers that need to be prepared for (for example, in confronting Iran, tussling with the Biden administration regarding Iran, handling Hamas’ rise in West Bank Palestinian politics, and deflecting Turkey’s many Mediterranean aggressions) and can contribute to Israel’s security.

What is important is whether they see the economic and health pitfalls ahead and can contribute to the urgent job creation and vaccination challenges before Israel.

What is important is whether they can come together, and overcome their narrow party interests, to enact a reform of Israel’s political system, for example by significantly raising the threshold for getting into Knesset! A 10% threshold, instead of the current 3.5%, would bring stability and responsibility to Israel’s political system.

Politicians would be forced to get along in one haredi party, one Arab party, one religious Zionist party, one left-wing party, and one right-wing party – with no ephemeral, fly-by-night, “centrist” parties. And then they inexorably would be compelled to sit in coalitions with lambs and lions from across the spectrum.

This would be good for Israeli politics and good for Israeli society. It would require all of us to think moderately about how to get along with others in “big tent” Israel.

I am familiar with the argument that Israel’s 25-way political scuffling gives all factions in Israel a political voice; that the multiple-party-list electoral system protects all tribes in a never-ending tug of war between competing ideologies; that this system (the old system) is healthiest because even the most microscopic clique can obtain representation in Knesset and feel it “belongs.”

However, the repeat-and-advance-nowhere electoral rut that Israel has fallen into suggests that the above logic has worn out. If the very large and very divided “United” States of America can manage with only two political parties, bite-sized Israel should be able to manage with only five political parties.

The Israeli political comedy show Eretz Nehederet put it this way: “The Chosen People have become the Choosing People (i.e., the Voting People), and there is little left that connects us. (In Hebrew, to choose, to vote, and to connect sound the same: nivchar, bocher, and mechaber.)

And if that were not so sad, it would be funny.

POSSESSING A SENSE of united purpose always has been central to community and nation building, in any society. It provides direction and ensures resilience.

It is no accident that the core Haggada text of the Passover seder speaks directly to these civilizational necessities. It grounds Jewish peoplehood in grand values, and anchors Jewish history in Divine providence. It then explicitly acknowledges the enemy (“In every generation they rise up to destroy us…”); recommits to fighting that enemy with G-d’s help (“pour out thy wrath…”); and tasks Israel with shaping an idealized future (“rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem”).

It counts on the fact that just about every Jew feels part of this grand meta-historic voyage; a journey based on a shared narrative and a moral heritage that has sustained the Jewish People for thousands of years and returned it to the Land of Israel.

Of course, not everybody in the country is “religious” in terms of the traditional practice of Judaism. But most Israelis feel that there is some Guiding Hand behind the modern renaissance of Jewish life and peoplehood.

That is why almost everybody participates in the Passover seder. Our party politics ought to reflect a shared sense of mission and responsibility too.

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David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker