The Wages of Indecision


Published July 31, 2008, issue of August 08, 2008.
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Blaming the Jews for the world’s troubles is one of the oldest of spectator sports. Lately, though, the practice has been refined to a level of theatrical fantasy approaching high art. In November 2000 there were those few thousand confused Jewish seniors from Palm Beach County who threw American democracy into chaos with their butterfly ballots. In March 2003 came the few dozen Zionist neocons who finagled the Bush administration into invading Iraq for Israel’s benefit. Now we’re down to a single, sad-faced old gent from Long Island, one Morris Talansky, who has driven Israel’s ship of state onto the rocks by throwing dollars at the prime minister.

Talansky is the reluctant star of Israel’s latest political crisis, the impending downfall of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The generous New Yorker riveted Israelis in May testimony describing how he handed envelopes stuffed with the cash to the prime minister’s aides. That deposition was the tipping point in Olmert’s losing battle against corruption charges.

Journalists and academics have responded with breathless debates over the role of Diaspora Jews, particularly rich American Jews, in Israeli decision-making. Talansky isn’t alone in the dock. Rivers of ink have been spilled examining Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Las Vegas gaming mogul, who has spent millions in the past two years to hobble Olmert and boost the pro-settler right. Others have come before, including Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnick, a backer of Benjamin Netanyahu , and Florida physician Irving Moscowitz, who funds settler institutions.

The smart Israel-watchers say these Diaspora Jews play an outsized and perhaps illegitimate role in Israeli politics, that foreigners have no business interfering in other countries’ internal politics. They often add that hawks are more likely than doves to play the game, forgetting that wealthy liberals like Edgar Bronfman and S. Daniel Abraham were the bogeymen of earlier decades.

Israelis are more blunt. More than a few say that Jews in the Diaspora have little right to weigh in on Israeli policy decisions because they don’t live in Israel and bear the consequences.

But foreigners step into other countries’ politics all around the world. They donate to political parties in South Africa and Taiwan, launch human rights groups in Poland and Hungary, march for policy changes in Russia, Sudan and Iran. Sometimes they simply invade.

The sentiment that seems to come out of some quarters in Israel is that Diaspora Jews can and should speak out on the affairs of every country, except the one they care about most deeply.

Israelis have been complaining about government dysfunction since the state was born, as though creating a new nation, winning five wars and absorbing two million immigrants all happened by accident. They blame the failures on a system paralyzed by structural flaws. The solution is usually something like the American system, with its incorruptible presidency, efficient Congress and immunity from special interests and fundamentalist religious pressure groups.

Good-government types in Jerusalem take pride in the American-style reforms already enacted. One was the introduction in 1988 of party primaries, replacing backroom nominating committees. Primaries forced candidates for public office to raise big money to reach voters. Ever since, Israel has been plagued by a never-ending series of political finance scandals.

The other reform was the personal election of the prime minister, enacted in 1992. Under the old system, the largest party in parliament assembled a governing coalition and named the prime minister. The reform was supposed to strengthen the executive and make the fractious parliament more tractable. Instead, it freed Israelis from pressure to vote for one of the big parties that would pick the prime minister. Voters could use their second, parliamentary ballot as a form of personal expression. As a result, the Knesset imploded into a jungle of tiny parties. The job of assembling enough factions to create and preserve a governing coalition became all but hopeless. The reform was rescinded in 2003, but to no avail. Since 1992, not one Israeli government has survived a full term.

What drives otherwise sober Israelis to concoct such hare-brained schemes and silly theories? Simply put, most can’t face the depressing fact that they are hopelessly divided, making consensual democracy elusive. Half the country wants to keep the West Bank and half wants to withdraw, and each side thinks the other threatens Israel’s survival. The stakes are enormous, civility in short supply. Still, trying to sidestep the debate by tinkering with the rules — or trying to silence their friends — only makes things worse. Israelis need to decide, for their own sakes.

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