If it feels as though we’re living through strange, frightening times, that’s because we are. The planet is experiencing a wrenching atmospheric change, what with biblical-scale storms and droughts, disappearing polar ice caps, rising oceans and endangered crop cycles. The nations, particularly in the 1.5 billion-strong Muslim world, are undergoing a collective nervous breakdown that spills over into the West and strains the moorings of the democratic Enlightenment. The economy teeters like a table that’s lost a leg.
And smack in the middle of it all are two political crises unfolding in our own backyards that bring the global crises home and teach us something about national responsibility. The two local crises are not directly related to one another, but they share certain critical traits. Each one holds a key to resolving a larger international crisis that it did not cause but could help to ease.
One of these two nations can’t agree to pay its bills. The other is busily outlawing dissent while it swats away pressure to resolve its international disputes.
I refer, of course, to America and Israel, those two exceptional cities on a hill. Exceptionalism indeed.
The two crises represent, each in its own way, climactic moments in parallel, 30-year revolutions — transformative right-wing campaigns to rewrite the politics of their respective nations. In both crises the stakes are much larger than the immediate debate; each crisis cuts to the heart of that nation’s politics and beyond, to issues of global stability. In both cases, enlightened world opinion looks on in shocked, heartbroken fascination at the mad rush to seeming self-destruction by two nations that should and could represent the best of the human spirit.
The two revolutions have different goals. The American right has long aimed to undo the redistributive social contract of the welfare state, to erase Franklin Roosevelt’s sin of 1935. The Israeli right aims to undo the partition of the Land of Israel, to reverse David Ben-Gurion’s sin of 1948.
But they share other things. In both countries, a radical movement that came to power three decades ago, during a crisis in traditional liberalism, holds key levers of power. In both countries the radicals interpreted their election victories as mandates for sweeping, radical change. In both countries the radicals value their core principles more than the rules of democracy and regard their opponents’ views as fundamentally illegitimate. In both countries the debate has reached a critical point.
In America, the revolution that began with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 seemed for years to be little more than rhetoric. Despite the radicals’ bold talk, they could never build a consensus to tear up the safety net. They were able, however, to burrow beneath the foundations of the social contract by lowering taxes, which led to steadily mounting government debt. The national debt — it can’t be said often enough — rose from $0.9 trillion or 33% of Gross Domestic Product in 1980 to $14 trillion or about 95% of GDP today. Now, in a sudden fit of righteousness, the party that created the great bulk of the debt insists it must be reduced at once. Reduced, mind you, not by putting things back the way they were before the sabotage, restoring taxes to the workable levels of the prosperous generation preceding the revolution. No, the damage must be fixed by shredding the social contract that they couldn’t undo by honest, democratic means.
In Israel, of course, the revolution took place in plain sight, as one government after another built settlements in the West Bank, deepening Israel’s hold on the holy hill-country. It’s often said that Israel’s two main parties, left and right, had an equal hand in settlement growth going back to 1967, but this is misleading. The left mostly built in sensitive border areas, hoping to dictate the contours of a future compromise peace. The right, dominant following the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, promoted settlements throughout the Palestinian heartland precisely in order to prevent compromise and ensure permanent Israeli control.
For years the debate was moot, as Israelis saw no sign of compromise on the Arab side. Since the 1993 handshake on the White House lawn, however, the equilibrium has been in flux. Negotiations have started and stopped repeatedly, punctuated by cycles of terrorism and Israeli crackdowns. Eighteen years of pendulum swings have left Israel more divided than ever. The left believes peace is possible if Israel shows enough openness. The right believes compromise is a trap and talk of openness only emboldens the enemy.
But the world has not stood still while Israel debated. Forty years of occupation, land disputes and crackdowns have left Israel isolated and discredited, facing an international wall of pressure to compromise and withdraw. In Israel, left and right each claim the current moment as urgent proof that they were right all along. But the left is not in power. The right is. And so, suddenly, the Israeli discussion is no longer about how much to compromise, but about what may be discussed.
Many Israelis, not only on the right, believe the turmoil in the Muslim world should help make Israel’s case by showing the West the true, unreasoning face of their common foe. The opposite has been the case. The Islamic upheaval only increases Western impatience with Israel. It’s widely believed that an Israeli-Palestinian deal would defuse at least some of the tension between Islam and the West. To Europe, therefore, Israel’s settlement and defense policies are not just Israel’s business, but the world’s. This deepens Israel’s sense of isolation and further strengthens the right.
Europe looks at America in much the same way. American fiscal policy has scared the daylights out of Europeans for years. Ditto America’s inability to tackle carbon fuel. America’s sniffles give the world pneumonia, yet in Europe’s view, America won’t wipe its nose.
European impatience doesn’t alarm Americans the way it worries Israelis. America is less vulnerable. But it does help draw the American and Israeli right together. It’s one more thing the two revolutions share: the conviction that everyone else is corrupt or crazy.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).