Are Israelis happy with their government? A poll published a few weeks ago by the country’s Channel 12 showed that a plurality preferred the current coalition comprising parties of the right, center, left and one Arab faction over the previous right-wing/religious government led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet when asked who they wanted to lead the country, the answer remains what it’s been for years: Netanyahu maintains a wide lead over all possible alternatives, including current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. And when also asked which party they would vote for in a theoretical new election, the answer also remains the same as it was throughout a stalemate that lasted over two years and four elections: Netanyahu’s Likud would win the most votes, though would have no chance of forming a governing coalition with its allies.
The government led by Bennett is divided against itself on all important issues. But since the only alternative remains an endless round of inconclusive elections, it’s likely that the current arrangement will remain in place at least until Lapid is scheduled to switch jobs with Bennett in 2023 since all those concerned remain united by their belief that Netanyahu must be kept out of office.
That doesn’t sound like a good formula for leading a country that faces enormous problems on many fronts, even if it has brought Israelis a respite from unnecessary elections.
Yet to one of the leading pundits in the mainstream media, that sounds like an example for Americans to emulate.
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman may have gone beyond his expiration date sometime in the distant past, but has somehow retained his perch on the opinion pages of the flagship of liberal journalism, even if his columns appear less frequently than they once did. If nothing else, Friedman remains a reliable indicator of conventional wisdom among the chattering classes, and his columns do tell us what the foreign-policy and journalism establishments are thinking.
So when he wrote this week urging that the Democratic Party follow Bennett and Lapid’s example if it wants to hold onto power in Washington, it’s an indicator both of the columnist’s inveterate foolishness as well as of the moral panic that has seized hold of many people about the future of American democracy.
Friedman is just one of many to sound the alarm about the impending doom of American democracy. The defeat of former President Donald Trump and the Democrat’s narrow hold on Congress haven’t been enough to calm their ruffled nerves. They are angry about the unwillingness of Republicans to completely repudiate Trump in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. They’re just as infuriated about the refusal of approximately half the country to acquiesce to claims by President Joe Biden and other Democrats that if a series of sweeping laws federalizing elections and throwing any notion of ensuring the integrity of the vote out the window isn’t passed, then democracy will be destroyed. And they’re astonished that conservatives don’t agree that those who oppose the voting bills are the moral equivalent of advocates of “Jim Crow” racism or that this means that the GOP is now a party of “insurrectionist” traitors.
What’s more, they lack the self-awareness to realize that these wild claims are as much of a “big lie” as Trump’s are about the 2020 election, or for that matter, the Democrats’ floating of the Russian collusion conspiracy theory to undermine the legitimacy of the 2016 election results.
But what’s really troubling them is the way Biden’s approval ratings are sinking, coupled with the prospect that the Democrats are likely to receive an even worse thumping in the midterm elections this fall than is usual for parties in power, which means that they will lose control of Congress in 10 months.
Rather than acknowledge mistakes, they are doubling down on the hyperbole. Having convinced themselves that their gaslighting the country about a disgraceful riot being the moral equivalent of the 9/11 attacks is actually true, many on the left now sound as if they believe that the only way to save American democracy is to prevent the GOP from winning back Congress and the presidency in 2024 by any means possible, even if it means changing the rules or overturning constitutional norms.
This is yet another troubling symptom of the bitter tribal culture war into which U.S. politics has descended. Americans on both sides of the party divide no longer credit each other with good intentions. The notion that the other side’s aim is not merely to enact mistaken policies but to destroy democracy is also commonplace on both ends of the political spectrum.
So when Friedman writes to analogize the political situation in Israel to the current political dilemma facing America, he’s echoing what many liberals in both countries believe.
Netanyahu’s critics thought he was destroying democracy. Even if you agree that a change at the top was inevitable, Israeli democracy wasn’t in danger. The problem was that democracy (as expressed by the country’s system of proportional representation) was working all too well with the narrow split among the voters about Netanyahu being accurately reflected in the composition of each new Knesset. The result was that something had to give—and that meant a group of parties with nothing in common except for their loathing of one person. That formed the basis of a coalition government to end the stalemate.
As is currently the case now in the United States, at no point was democracy in danger. Those who claimed that right-wingers pointing out the flaws in the system, especially with respect to the selection of Supreme Court justices, or the bias of most of the Israeli media against Netanyahu were signs of proto-authoritarianism were at best being disingenuous and at worst simply lying for political advantage.
Friedman’s advice to Democrats is that they should discard the leftist agenda Biden has embraced in order to secure Republican votes in the midterms. He then jumps the shark by advocating that they nominate renegade Republican Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)—who is using her role as wingman to Democrats on the House’s Jan. 6 Committee in order to demonize not just Trump but all Republicans—to replace Vice President Kamala Harris in 2024.
That’s not going to happen for a number of reasons. Unlike the right-wingers who make up a considerable portion of Bennett’s coalition, Cheney represents no one but herself and a tiny remnant of what is left of Never Trump Republicans. No matter what they think of Trump, almost everyone in the GOP believes that the Democrats’ talk of “insurrection” is aimed at destroying them and not just the former president. Nor will the Democrats’ left-wing activist base, which appears to have captured Biden on most matters of substance, acquiesce to any such dubious alliance.
However, the main problem is that by hyping a non-existent threat to democracy in order to try and delegitimize their opponents, liberals in the chattering classes are creating a real crisis of confidence in the system. Indeed, with both parties starting to believe that there is no way they can be defeated by fair means, it’s easy to see that no matter who wins in 2022 and 2024, each side will be prepared to make their own claims about their defeat being the result of foul play or a “plot against America.”
For the moment, Israel is living with an unsatisfactory compromise. Absurd talk about democracy being doomed will resume the next time voters are given a chance to put Netanyahu back in office by democratic means. In the United States, the war to save democracy is not only equally disingenuous but doing far more damage than Trump’s penchant for flouting convention ever did. Not only is Israel’s example a poor one for Americans to follow; it’s imperative that sensible people on both sides of the aisle start denouncing the apocalyptic rhetoric lest the predictions of disaster become self-fulfilling.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.