Democracies do not go to war against democracies is a well-known theory in International Relations. Piles of peer-reviewed papers have explained the rationale behind this theory and why it appears to hold in practice. In a nutshell, countries appreciate other countries with common values and respect the will and vote of the people in those countries. Beyond the foreign policy dimensions of democracy, its strongest attributes are often domestically driven. Nowhere is that more evident than in Israel. That was accurate in the ‘70s, when Henry Kissinger said that “Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy“, and it is just as valid today. Maybe more so.
Israel’s strength does not come solely from its powerful military, advanced technology and stable economy. The source of its strategic strength was rooted from being the only true democracy in the Middle East, while serving as a stronghold of freedom in a region of tyranny. Democracy gave Israel internal and external strength. That strategic asset is withering away.
The shriveling status stems from the anomaly that despite receiving only 5% of the vote its prime minister was appointed to head a multi-party government. The glitz occurred after several small parties took advantage of a legal lacuna in Israel’s unwritten constitution. Different political factions with completely different ideologies hodgepodged their party platforms and formed a coalition with a sole common objective: Prevent Benjamin Netanyahu, (whose party received the most votes – by far) from being Prime Minister.
By doing so, Israel 2021 has put democracy on hold – and it has been costly.
Israel’s standing has steadily slipped with friends, foes and most importantly from within.
The US administration has lost respect for Israel. The US demanded and received an unprecedented promise from Israel to notify it before taking crucial military action. The US demanded and received a guarantee that Israel will not publicly criticize a nuclear agreement that threatens to pave a path for a nuclear Iran. The lack of respect is bipartisan. Republicans refrained from meeting Bennett in his previous visit to Washington and progressive Democrats recently voted to prevent Iron Dome support. David Friedman was described by The New York Times “as one of America’s most influential envoys” upon completing his tenure as US Ambassador to Israel in January. A permanent US Ambassador has yet been placed.
Israel’s foes are quick to sense weakness. Hamas rockets and balloons are being launched from Gaza and Egypt is scheduled to scale up their forces in the Sinai Peninsula in order to help confront Hamas. Syria has shot anti-aircraft missiles that landed in Tel Aviv and Iran is reported to be a month away from a nuclear bomb. The Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen, who refrained from terrorism for 12 years, has now threatened Israel with an ultimatum – “return to 1967 borders within one year – or else…”. All the while, Israel’s Defense Minister muttered that he “can live with” a renewed Iranian Nuclear Deal.
Israel’s weakness is especially telling from within. The lack of legitimacy limits governing ability. A previously perceived right-winger, Naftali Bennett, is now mistakenly viewed by many to merely be a “useful idiot” serving the left-wing parties who appointed him. Notwithstanding the logic in that argument – Bennett is not blind. He was fully aware that the Covid-19 surge, shortly after he took power, necessitated a limited lockdown. He knew that if the September school opening would be postponed until the booster vaccine kicked in – lives would be saved. He also knew he couldn’t enforce anything. His inability to manage the pandemic has resulted in hundreds of unnecessary fatalities and transformed Israel from a country with one of the highest international COVID-19 rankings to one of the worst. From one of the lowest infection rates per capita to one of the highest in the world. Over 1200 deaths in less than 120 days in power.
Israel is strong enough to overcome the democratic and constitutional crisis it is tangled in. It can do so by returning to the basics. The Prime Minister and the government need to represent the will of the People and their vote. That is basic.
There is no better way of doing that than a direct vote for Prime Minister followed by a vote for the parties two year later. This has yet to be tried before in Israel but something similar has proven successful in America, a bigger and more experienced democracy.
Returning to basics will help restore Israel’s democracy, legitimacy and garner respect from friends, foes and most importantly – from within.