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The utterly embarrassing spectacle of the U.S. government shutdown has completely taken all the fun out of being an American abroad.
After all, how many times have I been able to lord it over the locals with a superior attitude and criticize the problematic political system and power structure in Israel? There have been times when the powerful unions banded together and called a strike that paralyzed the country, shutting down schools, airports, government offices and making life unbearable, or some tiny party in the Knesset shifted alliances, setting off a chain of events that led to the dissolution of the government and new elections. Or the weeks and months after such an election and after the ballots have been counted, nobody knows who is going to actually be able to put together a coalition and run the country.
Those were occasions when I could point to the American system of government and say, “Sure, we’ve got partisanship and arguments, but back in the U.S., they’ve got a democratic system based on a strong constitution that contains logical checks and balances, and a healthy civic culture that puts the common interest ahead of momentary political whims. Unlike Israelis, the American people would never tolerate this kind of utter dysfunction in Washington. Why can’t they run things efficiently like back home in the U.S.?”
The shut-down has put an end to all that.
And let’s be clear, it’s not only the individual egos of American citizens being damaged overseas. The overall stature of the U.S. and by extension, anything the U.S. is involved in, has been affected, including the Middle East peace process.
As I watched Secretary of State John Kerry descend from his airplane Monday morning, heading for his latest go at wrestling Israeli and Palestinian leaders into peace negotiations, it felt as if this time around, he had a lot less credibility - and it had nothing to do with Syria or Iran. It has to do with the ongoing shutdown mini-series playing out on our television sets. The average Israeli or Palestinian sees the white marble edifices of Washington locked down as the country’s so-called leaders trade blame, and think: if the Americans can’t get their own act together, how are we really supposed to rely on their guarantees in order to make those famous ‘painful compromises’?
And on a grander scale, the whole vision of showing the world that American-style democracy is just swell is taking a big hit. If I’m starting to feel as if the parliamentary circus we call the Knesset is starting to look good in comparison, imagine how those who live under dictatorships must be consoling themselves right now. “Well, we may be living under the boot of a domineering tyrant or a group of self-interested fascists, but at least they pay the bills and don’t behave like a bunch of dysfunctional children. And our museums and national monuments are still open.”
So, yes, for a short time the Israeli landscape started looking better in comparison.
It’s not like I’ve never seen its good points. In the past, I have been impressed by the level of the country’s political dialogue, one in which people really debated the serious life-and-death issues the country faced and didn’t get bogged down in silly personal scandals.
Back in the days of the Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky affair, it was clear that there were serious and real existential dangers Americans were worried about. Israelis, on the other hand, cared less about their leaders' private lives because their private behavior was irrelevant to their leadership skills, I would say to my American friends. And illegal or not, Israelis would never, ever waste their time in conversations as to whether their politicians had smoked marijuana in their youth.
Over the past week, in the midst of important breaking events both locally and in the neighborhood - Egypt, Syria, Iran - a big chunk of the nightly news was devoted to the discussion of who smoked what and when.
Back in February, you may recall, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid claimed he never smoked marijuana, only to be faced with a parade of folks who recall sharing a joint with him. This week, it was Labor leader Shelli Yacimovitch’s turn in the hot seat when she took a swipe at Lapid by revealing openly that she smoked pot ‘a few times’ when she was young and clueless, the last time being 16 years ago. And then she was the one in the hot seat when compatriots recalled lighting up with her far more recently than that. The news this week has featured a parade of true confessions as ten Knesset members admitted that they, too had tried the forbidden weed, as if it wasn’t an incredibly common generational occurrence.
And so it seems that these two allied democracies seem determined to adopt the worst qualities the other one possesses - dysfunction and disarray on one hand, and a focus on utterly unimportant marginal issues on the other.
It all makes me look back on the times when in various states of frustration, I wished Israel was more like America or that America was more like Israel. When I do, it makes me realize the old saying is true: Be careful what you wish for.