I envy Americans. The choice they face in their coming election is so clear. The choice we Israelis will face in our next election couldn’t be more muddled.
The choice in the United States is so stark because nearly every policy the Republican administration has put into action has failed, and in just the ways that the Democrats predicted. The implosion of the economy, the metastasization of the national debt, the failure of the adventure in Iraq, the destabilization of the Middle East and now the Russian periphery, the impending disappearance of the arctic ice cap–you name it, the Democrats were right and the Republicans were wrong. During the last eight years, the Democrats erred only when a) they assumed that the Republicans would pursue a risky policy in a responsible way (as in Iraq) or b) when they were too frightened to speak up clearly against insane policies that were popular with the electorate (as with the Bush tax cuts).
Israel, too, faces economic and social ills and threats to its security. But here, over the last eight years, the policy choices have not been as plain, the facts on the ground have been ambiguous, and the political opposition has not offered clear alternatives. The United States has been ruled from the far right since George Bush came into office; Israel has been ruled from the center during that same period.
The Olmert government made a disastrous error in its conduct of the Lebanon War of two years ago, and has pursued an insane policy of trying to eviscerate the Supreme Court. But the broader picture is not black and white, whether in foreign, defense, or domestic policy.
The major reason Olmert has been able to continue to govern despite the numerical weakness of his party and seemingly endless police investigations is that neither Labor nor Likud has tried to rally the country around a clear alternative set of solutions to the problems faced by Israel. In fact, both these parties largely agree with the basic outlines of this government’s program. They’d change emphases but not fundamentals. Both Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu would continue to seek, warily, a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. Neither will commit himself unambiguously to the use of force, or to its non-use, in facing the challenges presented by Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. In the domestic sphere, they face the same constraints of budget and entrenched interests; again, they differ on details but not on the basics.
So why hasn’t the Israeli political system produced a local Barack Obama who can stand up and campaign for change we can believe in?
I think the main reason is that we live in a small country, one that’s not as strong as we often like to believe. As a small country, both our defense position and our economy are influenced in powerful ways by forces beyond our control–in particular, the domestic and foreign policy of the United States of America. In the international economic and security milieu of the last eight years, Israel has been left with little choice but to muddle through as best it can.
A real change in the United States will likely present Israel with new opportunities to progress towards peace and towards solutions to its economic and social problems. When that happens, but only when it does, will Israeli voters face the stark–and obvious–choices that American voters face this November.