My sister, who has lived in Israel for thirty-five years, often refers to her adoptive country as “the fifty-first state.” It’s more than a little true.
As Israel’s most steadfast ally and friend in the Western world, America occupies a unique place in the Israeli consciousness under any and all circumstances. What’s going on in real time in America, from weather events to national tragedies, is always front and center in Israel’s media outlets. But beyond that, the juxtaposition this week of President Obama’s inauguration on Monday- the fruit of his recent electoral victory over Mitt Romney- with Israel’s national elections on Tuesday was almost surreal. It was almost as if the two countries were breathing together, all the Netanyahu-Obama noise notwithstanding.
One didn’t have to dig too deeply beneath the surface of Israel’s pre-election hype to discern what was going on there. And, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, it was more than a little similar to what had played out here in America. Both countries had powerful forces pulling to the political right. Would they emerge from their elections as more ideologically extreme versions of themselves, or would the electorate pull in the reins and say, in essence, “not so fast?”
The fact that it was Barack Obama being sworn in on Monday and not Mitt Romney is the American answer to that question.
Throughout President Obama’s first term, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party had introduced an unprecedented assault on the centrist, more moderate wing of the GOP, to the extent of hemming in any Republican candidate who hoped to gain his/her party’s nomination. A number of respected, more moderate Republican incumbents were defeated in primaries, or resigned. On social issues, matters of taxation and government spending, and foreign policy, the Tea Party drove the Republican Party so far to the right that it would have been virtually unrecognizable to Nelson Rockefeller and others of his ilk. And, of course, the increased ideological inflexibility that came with these new doctrines helped to produce one of the most unproductive Congresses in American history, and a House Majority Leader unable to marshal a majority of his own members to support a compromise that he himself was ready to sign onto.
After a first term that, even as an admirer of his, I would readily admit was something less than I would have hoped for given the promise and hope that accompanied his election in 2008, the American people saw fit to re-elect President Obama, and not by a narrow margin. Some will say that it owed to the mediocrity of the Republican candidate. Maybe, to some degree, it did. But I prefer to think that, in a broader sense, the electorate in this country was rejecting not the Republican Party per se, but rather what that once proud party had allowed itself to become. It had, in essence, been hijacked by its most extreme element, which was now, as it were, driving the bus. The American people chose to take a different ride.
And then there’s Israel…
In an effort to stave off any challenge from a more centrist element in the Israeli electorate, Prime Minister Netanyahu, already a hard-liner on foreign policy matters, decided to run on a merged ticket with Avigdor Lieberman’s even more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. We shall, at least for the moment, set aside the issue of whether or not Avigdor Lieberman, who is always under investigation for one alleged wrongdoing or another and who runs his party like a private fiefdom, is someone we might want in any Israeli government. I’d be quite happy, thank you, without him. But I digress…
PM Netanyahu thought that this clever maneuver would guarantee him a large electoral victory. But what he didn’t count on was that a significant number of the quality moderates within his own Likud Party, people like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, would leave the party, and he would be left with the most extreme elements of the religious/nationalist camp. And that’s exactly what happened. His core constituency looked at what was left behind and, wonder of wonders, decided that there had to be something better. As James Carville said some years ago in a different election context,“It’s the economy, stupid.” Even in Israel, where people certainly do care about the prospect of a nuclear Iran and an Egyptian President who thinks they’re descended from pigs and monkeys, they care- maybe more- about a decent job, a living wage, and affordable housing. And oh yes- the central plank of Yair Lapid’s platform is a call to end exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service and to make them more productive members of Israeli society. That also resonates with Israelis- even religious ones, more than a few of whom voted for Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid’s party.
Voters have a way of deciding what’s good for them, don’t they?
Two elections, two countries, two electorates, on a similar wavelength- it’s been quite a week…