Jeremy Burton

Changing the Politics of What Is Possible

In the days following Sunday’s installation of the new Israeli government, I’ve been struck by the negativity of some of the ‘hot-takes’ I’ve seen and heard: “Bennett is just another right-winger.” “This coalition won’t last more than 3-months.” “This government won’t make big moves on the issue I’m passionate about.”

Granted, a lot of that negativity is coming from people who are habitually negative about Israel. But it also strikes me as missing the mark at a fundamental level about what this new government is, what it represents, and why this new coalition is a cause for hope and inspiration; for those who believe that we can still find leaders who are willing to put aside their personal differences for the common good.

It is true that one can look at the new prime minister and say, “he’s a former director of the council of Jewish communities beyond the Green Line, and he’s said some pretty problematic things over the years.”  And, it is true that one can look at this coalition and see instability:

Eight parties with none, other than Yesh Atid, the party of coalition architect Yair Lapid, having double-digit seats. The thinnest possible majority in parliament, representing wildly diffuse parts of Israeli society, from hard-left Tel Avivniks to Modern Orthodox Jews living beyond the Green Line; hawkish secular Russian emigres alongside an Islamist party – the first Arab sector party to sign a coalition agreement.

But looking through our own particular lens means we’re missing what is happening here. Leaders and factions who have every excuse not to work with each other have instead decided to say: “We need to change how we do politics in this country, and it starts with taking huge risks to sit across our differences, to compromise in ways previously unimaginable and forge a new path forward – even if we don’t quite know yet what that way will be.”

If one thing binds this coalition, it’s the desire for a change from the politics of the personal, and from the politics of division, that have defined so much of the Israeli political sphere in recent years (as it has in so many countries). It’s a willingness to sit at a table, as one government, across profound disagreements, and say: “we will work on what we agree on, and we will work through those things about which we do not; debating them as people with a shared interest in the future of our coalition and our country.” It is also, not least, a government of leaders who, despite their differences, understand that corrosive partisanship hasn’t been good for their own country’s politics, nor for how they relate to their partners, including the United States.

It is also a statement that no one person will define the government, and no one person is essential to the security and the future of the nation. We Americans tend to disproportionately view the head of the government as the only person holding meaningful power.  It’s a political instinct that we are far too habituated to; focusing, for example, on electing a President and not turning out for mid-term elections for everything from school committees to the Senate. And it is also a growing trend in Israeli political dynamics, with an increasingly American-style premiership, which leads to diminished visibility of and leadership from other members of the cabinet.

This new government has chosen to break that mold, to elevate its own dramatic diversity, to hold shared power across divides, and to speak with a shared voice. Bennett is the premier, but every party is essential, all will be visible, and all will have influence.

It’s also an invitation to Israelis to imagine a future that isn’t defined by the centrality of any one person as prime minister. Young adults, and certainly those coming of age now, who are finishing high school and entering military service, have little memory of a nation before Netanyahu, and a politics not dominated by his personality and style. Change, even if modest – and this is hardly modest – can begin to expand young people’s imaginations about the politics of what is possible.

As has been noted by others, each of these parties has taken extraordinary political risks to form this coalition. It may be a majority-of-one, but it is a majority in which every single member has a vested interest in its success. And, by its own terms, its success – while we do not yet know how that will manifest on every issue, and even if it is limited in scope in certain important cases – could profoundly affect how Israelis do politics. Success, now, would be an adaptive change, and successful adaptation makes more adaptation possible in the future. That’s something that Israelis, their region, and our world need more of right now.

I look at this government and see genuine leaders, who are placing their sense of citizenship and collective responsibility above personal factions and any absolutism on issues. Given what we continue to see in the fractured politics of our own country, this gives me hope for what is possible. And so, I’m ready to reject the negativity out there about this government and to bet hard on the hope that it represents, and I’m eager to learn from their example.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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