Before the last elections, I had two nightmare scenarios. One was that Yair Lapid would become prime minister. The other was that Naftali Bennett would. Besides the incorrect policies, I felt each advocated, the well-known caricatures of the former as a clown and the latter as a child struck me as far too close to the mark. Add to that an Avigdor Liberman – someone I consider the most noxious personality in Israeli politics in a very long time – as one of the current government’s major players, and I should be calling for its fall on a daily basis.
But not only am I not calling for the coalition’s downfall, I actually see it as a force for good. That, however, has almost nothing to do with its players. Rather, it is the fragile and diverse majority holding it together that prevents it from enacting the divisive partisan policies that we have gotten so used to in politics.
Hence Bennett’s most dangerous territorial policies and Lapid’s most dangerous social policies are simply off the table. Instead, the government has only been able to accomplish what is supported by the broadest possible constituency. Its main accomplishments have arguably been passing the long-delayed budget and putting forward a high-profile development plan for the Golan Heights – both moves that most Israelis see as no-brainers. As for the rest, it has essentially kept to the ultimately centrist policies of the Likud-led government that preceded it – only with much less fanfare and contentiousness. Some will argue that that is not much. Maybe, but I don’t see that the country is worse for it. Actually, I would say it is much better.
The force that has done the most to torpedo tentative government initiatives has been its own coalition partner, the Arab Ra’am Party. In fact, this too is a good thing. When Israeli Arabs recognize the ground rules of Israel as a Jewish state – as Ra’am has – the Jewish majority must make every effort to find a consensus that will work for them as well. The same holds true for every group in Israel, including the Haredim – arguably the only major group not represented. For that reason, I see the current coalition’s greatest weakness not as being too broad, but rather not being broad enough.
When I was a young child, I participated in a psychology experiment that has stayed with me ever since. Researchers from UCLA took us in pairs to play games in which the only easy way to win prizes was by cooperation. Since we were not told that this was the nature of the game, we first tried to compete. We soon discovered, however, that continued competition would result in everybody losing. Hence my partner and I (and, as I later found out, most children) came to an agreement to take turns letting each other win. You would think that adult politicians would have noticed this type of thing by now as well.
To understand better, it may be helpful to turn to some age-old Jewish wisdom: In most cases – and as codified in the Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 12:2) – Jewish courts (batei din) have a policy of trying to work out a compromise before moving forward to a legal decision in favor of one of the parties and at the expense of the other. Though compromise has a place in other legal systems as well, I am not aware of any in which it is as pronounced. This is partly based on the premise that all litigants believe they are right. Though the court would bolster justice by declaring one party wrong, it would also deepen resentment and hatred. The equation then seems to be that the enhancement of peace and cohesiveness generally trumps the demands of justice.
This bit of Jewish wisdom is rarely found in the chambers of power, whether domestic or international. It seems that it is only when parties have no other choice that they – usually kicking and screaming – understand the benefits of compromise and consensus. A good illustration of this can be found in the paradoxical cold peace that held through the entire duration of the Cold War. This situation was cleverly termed, MAD, for Mutual Assured Destruction. Although the Hudson Institute’s Donald Brennan – who first coined the expression – meant it derisively, the specter of mutual destruction was the most important single factor that kept the major powers from going to war: Both United States and the Soviet Union knew not to pursue policies so objectionable to the other as to lead to nuclear war and their own destruction.
Make no mistake: The responsible policies of the current government are also the result of mutual assured destruction. Every party knows that trying to push through anything that cannot at least be tolerated by its partners will result in new elections, elections that are for the time being unlikely to reward any of the coalition’s factions.
Granted, there is a place for policies based on the will of the majority plain and simple. But the wisdom of the Jewish courts should remind us that divisive decisions – even when correct – should be a choice of last resort. The contemporary polarization in so many Western nations (and Israel is far from immune) should serve as a warning to what may happen when we do not give this more thought. Perhaps the time has finally arrived for us to think differently about how a nation is supposed to come together.