8 November 2012
Some Israeli and American friends have undoubtedly spent the last twenty-four hours casting re-elected President Obama and Vice President Biden in the roles of Samuel Jackson and John Travolta from the classic Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction -- plotting how best to avenge Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s unseemly interventions in the American election. Make no mistake, the Israeli Premier’s blunt incursions into America politics were real, unbefitting of his office and did not go unnoticed in the White House.
Equally, make no mistake that President Obama is not about to indulge in a round of tit-for-tat and that Israel’s path out of its current deep malaise ultimately depends on whether Israelis themselves can drive progressive change. Certainly those who care about Israel in America have a role to play, including President Obama himself. The President’s actions in the coming months regarding the Israeli/ Palestinian file and the Iran file and other Middle Eastern matters in his in-tray will clearly impact the Israeli scene.
But perhaps the biggest impact will be a product of how Israelis and Americans relate to the subtext of the way in which Israel became entangled in American electoral politics and of the deeper questions on the Israeli ballot in January. The key issue in both, without wishing to over-dramatize, is that of Israeli democracy. Israel was never a perfect democracy (and neither is anywhere else, although Israel’s challenge in balancing a self-defined Jewish state and equality for all its citizens is particularly pronounced) but the democratic deficit Israel has recently experienced is of a whole new order of magnitude. The Israel-related shenanigans in Tuesday’s elections are only superficially about the super-donor who is shared by Israel’s prime minister and the GOP challenger. Something else was also going on here. It was partly an attempt to redefine American and Israeli shared values as being less about liberal democracy and more about some kind of civilizational struggle on behalf of a narrow view of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which would seemingly necessitate cutting certain corners when it comes to democracy. And, apparently, the current Israeli government has no intention of reversing the occupation and is on a path away from governing a democracy.
The hope now is that in reasserting the American interest in resolving the conflict and being allied to a democratic Israel, that president Obama will also serve the Israeli interest by reminding Israelis of the democratic path its future must tread. It matters that President Obama should re-launch a credible drive to advance de-occupation and a resolution on Israel/ Palestine. It is not for the President to interfere in Israeli politics – again, no tit-for-tat -- but he can certainly articulate clear goals and principles and remind Israeli voters of crucial issues that might otherwise disappear from the agenda for the convenience of leaders of both Likud and Labor.
This can not only be about President Obama, it is also about us. The President made that much clear in his victory speech, when he turned to the crowd and the listening American public and said that “the role of citizen does not end with your vote.” Looking back over the last twenty years of struggle, for instance for gay rights, it seems remarkable the progress that has been made from ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to a president promoting marriage equality. Looking at the punishment voters meted out to Senate candidates espousing obscenities with allegories of rape and a woman’s right to choose- in states not known for social liberalism- proves again the potency of that fuller version of citizenship.
That is the challenge that the president has set for many communities – and not least the NIF community -- to create a moral, intellectual and public climate on our issues that disqualifies and makes inadmissible a set of policies that drive Israel further from the camp of liberal democracy and deeper into the murky waters of occupation, extremism and intolerance. A clearer, strong and committed voice from American Jews supporting the plethora of progressive voices struggling in Israel today is the best way to start responding to the divides between Israel and the U.S. made all too apparent by this week’s election.
Daniel Levy is a board member of the New Israel Fund, directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow of the New America Foundation.