I spend quite a bit of time trying to explain to audiences and readers abroad why Israel is evolving the way it is. For most Western audiences, the overriding question is why Israel’s governments are systematically undermining the Zionist project of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jews, and may be on their way to destroying it.
Prominent political theorist Michael Ignatieff’s recent book “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics” is a helpful guide to understanding the drift of Israel’s politics toward right-wing nationalism. Ignatieff returned to Canada after decades abroad, became leader of its Liberal Party, presided over the party’s worst showing ever, and left politics. Ignatieff’s book sums up what he learned in his five years in politics.
He primarily found out how physical and emotional politics can be, and how visceral the connection between political leaders and their constituencies needs to be. In a representative democracy, citizens want more than anything to feel that they are governed by people like themselves. They hate nothing more than when politicians talk down to them or lecture them, and the politicians’ most important task is to convince citizens that they care.
Israel’s liberals have had powerful arguments for decades regarding why Israel needs to end the occupation and must retain a profound affinity with the Western world, the only allies with whom we have deep, long-running ties. But let us be honest: While we liberals genuinely believe that the two-state solution is Israel’s only chance to survive as a democracy, we — like all ethnic, religious and political groups — want to be governed by people like us. We do not want to retain our ties to the West for strategic reasons only; we want Israel to be a Western country, because otherwise we would not be able to feel at home here.
Israel’s population today is, for the most part, comprised of various cultural groups whose members do not feel at home in a liberal-leaning country with a Western character and do not want to be governed by Western liberals who are unlike them. This certainly holds true for the ultra-Orthodox, whose core values run counter to those of personal, sexual and intellectual liberty. But it also holds true for many other Israelis who want Israel to be a more Jewish country. For MK Uri Ariel of Habayit Hayehudi, this means that Greater Israel should be the ideal; Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman wants Israel to be more nationalist; and Shas leader Aryeh Deri wants the country to be more religious.
This is why liberals’ warnings that we are about to lose our ties to the Western world are utterly ineffective in wooing voters. Ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist and secular nationalist Israelis may feel that we are fooling them, thinking that we are not motivated solely by what is in Israel’s interest but by our own interest in dictating the country’s cultural character and identity. That’s why we are so often ferociously attacked as insufficiently Jewish, and accused of selling out on Israel’s security. And that’s why it doesn’t even help if a long line of former generals and former leaders of the Shin Ben and Mossad say over and over that it is in Israel’s existential interest to end the occupation.
I believe this is also the reason that Israel’s Western-leaning liberals have progressively been losing ground since 1977, and the reason that at this point in history we seem to have no chance of regaining the country’s leadership.
Israel’s liberals have largely reacted with ever-growing anger and disdain. Except for a few representatives of Israel’s right, like Moshe Arens and Israel Harel, the pages of Haaretz are filled with commentary about how racist, xenophobic and brutal the country is becoming – and I have contributed my share to this polyphonic jeremiad. We are motivated, in part, by the profound fear that the more distant the prospect of a two-state solution becomes, the more Israel is doomed. But we also feel that we have become strangers in our own land.
What are we to learn from all this? Primarily that our rational arguments will not be any more effective in the future than they have been thus far, as long as they are voiced by people identified as liberals, be they politicians, columnists, intellectuals or even senior members of Israel’s security establishment. But we also need to realize that we will not save the country by talking down to those whose political identity differs greatly from ours; by doing so, all we do is elicit hatred and alienation. After all, non-liberals have as much of a right to their identity and core values as liberals have to theirs.
Given that liberals will not be regaining the country’s leadership for a long time, we must give Netanyahu all the support we can. Netanyahu’s potential successors are more ideologically extreme than he is. They are explicitly opposed to the two-state solution, and as Ya’alon’s recent unguarded criticism of the United States shows, they have little interest in deep ties with the free world. Unlike them, Netanyahu, against his own instincts, seems to have realized on an intellectual level that those ties are Israel’s only salvation.
As incredible as this may sound, Netanyahu may be our last hope.
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