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The New York Times: Misreading Israeli democracy

August 3, 2012

A recent New York Times editorial lamented the fragility of Israel’s democracy, Haaretz reported. Haaretz was right to highlight the piece, for particularly with the American elections looming, the editorial offers a sobering window into how Israel and its conflicts are perceived by some of America’s elites.

The Times expressed dismay at the breakup of Netanyahu’s super-coalition, as the government would no longer benefit from “Kadima’s moderating force,” arguing that Mofaz’ departure was a symptom of a country decreasingly committed to democracy.

But that is a simplistic view of what transpired. Parliamentary democracies need real oppositions, and with the super-coalition, Netanyahu did not have one. Those citizens who voted for Kadima (which garnered more votes in the 2009 elections than any other single party) did not vote for Likud. If anything was troubling from the point of view of democracy, it was the super-coalition, not its demise.

The Times also hinted that it preferred Mofaz’ more draconian solution to the ultra-Orthodox draft issue to Netanyahu’s more incremental approach. But what American observers ought to appreciate is that Israel now confronts a social ill no less divisive than was slavery in the United States. As in the American situation, Israel’s founders ignored a gross social injustice which was then woven into the fabric of the country from its very inception. And as in the United States, mishandling of this issue could lead to a tragic tear in the fabric of Israeli society from which we might not recover. Yes, the status quo, in which the ultra-Orthodox do not serve their country, is a moral outrage; the good news is that increasing numbers of Israelis want the issue addressed.

But how to resolve the question is far from clear. The ultra-Orthodox are resolute and could unleash chaos on the streets or cause significant economic upheaval. The situation is explosive. Furthermore, many among Israel’s top brass do not want the ultra-Orthodox drafted. The IDF has no manpower shortage, and arming thousands of young men whose loyalties might well be to their rabbis and not to their commanders carries great risks. Israel’s conundrum is infinitely more complex than the Times editorial suggests.

Perhaps most egregious, the Times’ claim that “an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union” poses a challenge to Israel’s democratic values is both appalling and ignorant. The experience of immigrants from the FSU proves precisely the opposite. Ex-Soviet Jews have formed their own political parties and have entered the political realm in far greater numbers than American immigrants, who virtually never run for national office. When Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah party was absorbed into the Likud in early 2003, it was a symbol that Russian Jews had become more integrated into Israel’s democracy, not less.

The Times’ unfair dig at Russian immigrants may well have been directed at Avigdor Lieberman, whose style and substance on many issues Americans understandably find distasteful. But why did so many young people flock to Lieberman’s party? One prime reason is a growing sense among Israelis that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply unsolvable. Faced with the prospect of interminable conflict, it is not surprising that many have drifted to extremes: abandoning all interest in Zionism, or xenophobia. Israelis are witness to both.

Yes, Mr. Netanyahu is in many respects “a disappointing, risk-averse leader.” But U.S. policy is not helping matters. When Obama asked Netanyahu to agree to a second building freeze, he demanded nothing equally politically suicidal from Abbas. That sort of inequity prolongs the conflict.

The Palestinians understand that they have no incentive to make a deal; their position, they correctly deduce, will only improve with time. So they have proven utterly unwilling to negotiate. For the Times to say that the Palestinians “have not shown enough commitment to a solution” is like saying that North Korea has failed to bring freedom and prosperity to all its citizens. It crosses the line from understatement to untruth.

Americans intuit that the Palestinians will not budge. Because Israel’s values are much closer to America’s (which is why the Times is so concerned for Israel’s democracy), the logic goes, if pressure is to be usefully exerted, it should be exerted on the Israelis.

But that will not work. While Israelis do not relish American pressure, they do not capitulate to it, either. So long as the attitudes of the Times editorial reflect those of America’s elites, the current stalemate will persist and hardliners on both sides will prevail. Those wishing to buttress Israel’s democracy would do well to read Israel with greater nuance, and to apply pressure not only on the Israelis, but on those whose incalcitrance is the true cause of our deadlock.


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