Israel's policy resembles America's

As I sat Sunday evening in an open-air restaurant on Jaffa Road and watched thousands of jubilant people, mostly young people, pass by aft...


As I sat Sunday evening in an open-air restaurant on Jaffa Road and watched thousands of jubilant people, mostly young people, pass by after celebrating Jerusalem Day, it was possible to imagine that Israel is a united country. But a few days spent reading the Israeli press and engaging in political conversations dispels that illusion. There are too many similarities between Israeli and American politics.

In Israel as in the United States, the opposing forces are deeply divided and the majority of the current government is hanging by a thread. In both countries, various coalitions are held together by mistrust and hatred on the other side. Right-wing forces are campaigning tirelessly against the threat of an undifferentiated “left” while the center and the far left fear the return to power of a charismatic populist conservative leader. Both sides believe the future – and the soul – of the nation are at stake, and they may be right.

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After each election, the Israeli president looks to the leader of one of the parties to assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. When Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to do so last year, the president gave that opportunity to Naftali Bennett, the leader of a small right-wing party, who cobbled together a majority. But now, hobbled by threats and defections, Mr Bennett’s eight-party government may not last much longer. If he falls, new elections – the fifth in three years – are likely. But that may not solve the impasse.

A recently released Jerusalem Post poll found that, as in previous elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party would come out on top, but the coalition he leads would fall short of the 61 seats needed to secure a majority in Israel’s Knesset. The poll explored the distribution of seats under alternative scenarios that would create the most likely splits and mergers in Israeli parties. The result: power would be reorganized within the two coalitions, but the balance between them would not change.

The terminology of left and right in Israeli politics obscures a great historical shift: the left as it once existed has collapsed and the center of gravity has shifted to the right. In various incarnations, the Labor Party dominated Israel for nearly three decades and rivaled Likud for another three decades. Today it controls only 7 seats out of 120, while Likud has 30.

But Labor’s loss was not Likud’s gain. Under Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership, his party has been rocked by internal divisions and by feuds with parties that previously supported him. After the last elections, three of these parties refused to support him and instead joined forces with centrist, leftist and Arab parties to end more than a decade as prime minister. Despite winning just seven seats, the leader of one of the new right-wing parties, Mr Bennett, became prime minister after agreeing to alternate leadership with Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh party Atid (“There is a future”).

To say that this situation is fragile is an understatement. To the dismay of many center-left Israelis, 69% of respondents to The Jerusalem Post opposed the inclusion of an Arab party in the next government. And if someone other than Mr. Netanyahu were to lead Likud, chances are at least one of the right-wing splinter parties would return to the fold, leading to the formation of a more cohesive majority coalition. ideological. One wonders how long it would take Likud to decide that, despite his political talents, Mr. Netanyahu is obstructing his party’s return to power.

In Israel as in the United States, the tight balance between parties has led to a constant struggle for political advantage, regardless of the consequences for governance and the long-term interest of the country. For example, the Israeli government recently proposed to increase tuition subsidies for former members of its armed forces, a policy favored by almost everyone. But in a secretly recorded meeting, Miri Regev, an ambitious Likud leader, urged members of her party to vote against the bill. “We have decided that we are a militant opposition and we want to bring down this government, so there are no stomachaches,” she said. Whatever the government’s agenda, she insisted — whether it’s about soldiers, the disabled or even rape victims — Likud members in the Knesset must stand up to their natural sympathies and vote against it.

A similar logic drove Senator Mitch McConnell’s famous statement that his main goal was to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term president. And it prompts leaders of both parties to introduce bills designed to send messages to the electorate rather than becoming law.

In a remarkable exchange of letters in 1934, right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky responded to expressions of confidence and esteem from socialist and rival David Ben-Gurion by confessing that “recently I have come to hate this way of life; my soul is weary of all the constant and endless bitterness that stretches beyond the horizon. You reminded me that maybe there is an end after all.

I suspect that many Israelis and Americans today share this weariness and are hoping for a sign that it can end. I know I do. But it will require leaders strong enough to take on their most stubborn supporters.

Outcome and outlook: Strategic ambiguity over Taiwan’s defense has long been US policy, but President Biden has now declared – four times – that he is ready to get involved militarily to defend the country. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Shutterstock Composed: Mark Kelly

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