Politics in the US and Israel: two sides of the same coin

The challenges might be specific to each country but they point to the same problem

The political scene both in the US and in Israel these days is testing the mostly western notion that democracy is the best form of government. In both societies, the system has gradually been perverted and now amounts to doing whatever it takes to stay in office or whatever is required to keep someone out of office. Principles and sound policy that serve people’s needs, justice and security are slowly eroding.

Let me begin with a story about US politics that I love to tell.

Forty years ago, I was speaking to a member of the US Congress, who was a good friend, about how disturbed I was by the way his colleagues were voting to give Israel unflinching support to pursue policies that defied not only international law and human rights law, but stated US policy as well.

I was acquainted with a number of these members and knew from conversations with them how deeply troubled they were by some Israeli practices. Many of them would say: "I'm really with you, but you know how it is. I'm running for reelection and can't risk taking a stand on this issue right now." I had heard this same thing enough times that I would joke that there should be an "'I'm Really With You But...' Congressional Caucus”.

Bothered by this behaviour, I asked my friend: "Where are their principles and their concern for the national interest?" He said: "What you don't understand is that from the day they are elected, my colleagues' primary concern and their definition of the national interest become synonymous with their reelection."

While I might have been naive back then, as the situation has only worsened, I have become wiser. Let me be clear about the fact that there are principled members of Congress who will take risks to do what is right for the country. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the case for the overwhelming majority. The combination of hyper-partisanship, the massive amounts of money being raised to run for Congress, and the role of "dark money" groups have so polluted the waters that our politics have become a grossly distorted caricature of democracy.

Hyper-partisanship has resulted in a paralysed Congress that can't pass legislation to save lives from disease or guns, protect the environment, or even ensure the right to vote.

Instead of acting to defend the interests of the American public, too many members of Congress decide their votes based on what will harm their opponents, help them raise money, and appease lobbyists who can make massive expenditures either for or against their reelection efforts.

All this has been compounded by the continued appeal of former president Donald Trump. Mr Trump's insistence that he won the 2020 election, but had it fraudulently stolen by Democrats, is still believed by two-thirds of Republican voters. This has affected our political system in three ways. Too many Republicans are running for office with campaigns designed to win the support of the former president and his so-called base by mimicking his effort to discredit any election that he or they do not win. Republicans are passing laws in states where they control the legislatures and executive branch that will establish partisan control over elections and voting. And Congress has been unable to pass laws to ensure an expansion and protection of voter rights. In short, American democracy is at risk.

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When the only goal is to keep Netanyahu from returning, principles and good governance are cast aside

Israel, which erroneously likes to call itself the "only democracy in the Middle East" is faring little better. Leave aside, for this discussion, its occupation of more than five million Palestinians and how it treats its two million Palestinian citizens. Its functioning makes a mockery of its claim to be democratic state.

The coalition government that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu from office has been celebrated by some as a demonstration of democracy that has unified Israel's right, centre and left, and has brought together under one roof ardent Jewish nationalists and an Arab Islamist party. But it appears that the only unifying principle for this coalition is the desire to keep Mr Netanyahu from returning to office.

Because this government is in office with the slimmest of margins, its Arab and so-called left-leaning members have regularly been embarrassed by votes they have been "forced" to take in order to protect "their coalition”. For example, they were required to oppose legislation cynically proposed by Mr Netanyahu's allies that would make Arabic language study mandatory in elementary schools. They were also required to support a bill offered by one of their right-wing coalition partners to extend Israel's discriminatory "Citizenship Law”. And they voted against bills put forward by their non-coalition rivals in the Arab sector that would have investigated the failure of the police to combat organised Arab crime.

Also making a mockery of this exercise in coalition-building is the way that the Arab and left members of the government are forced to keep silent as the government continues to pursue its expansion of settlements in Palestinian lands, the erosion of Muslim rights at the Haram Al Sharif, and its failure to act decisively to stop settler violence in the West Bank. It appears that when the only goal is to keep the coalition together to keep Mr Netanyahu from returning, principles and good governance are cast aside.

Instead of being members of a governing coalition, its Arab and left-leaning members act more like captives of their own self-interests and the over-arching goal of "anyone but Mr Netanyahu”.

It appears that the US has bought into this same logic in the way it has accommodated Mr Netanyahu's successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. In order to avoid embarrassing his government, the Biden administration has refrained from publicly criticising its plans to build settlements that will further cut off Palestinian access to Jerusalem. And they have deferred delivery on a campaign promise to open the US consulate in Jerusalem for the same reason.

And so I end where I began, with the observation that when a political system comprises doing whatever it takes to stay in office or whatever is required to keep someone out of office, what is getting lost are principles and sound policy that serve people's needs, justice and security.

Published: October 26th 2021, 4:00 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National