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The Rabbi Writes: Election Day

The Jewish Humanist, November 1982, Vol. XX, Number 4

Election Day. 

November is a month when we think about politicians and the way they should behave.  It is a time when we focus on the role of government in our lives. 

Government is an indispensable part of our existence.  When it makes demands on us and takes our money we hate it.  When it gives us what we want we love it.  For most citizens the ambivalence will never be resolved.  Even the most charismatic politician will be both admired and resented. 

No matter who is elected to public office-Democrat or Republican-he will have to confront certain realities.  There are certain facts that transcend the partisan struggle and become the setting for any government program. 

What are these realities? 

People distrust the government now more than ever before.  There is a deep disillusionment among all Americans about what the government can do for them.  Political activity has declined.  Established parties have difficulty recruiting workers.  The public attitude features more resentment than admiration.  Even in a time of deep recession the old radical movement cannot mobilize people for programs of massive government intervention. Ronald Reagan touches a strong popular sentiment when he speaks of shrinking the government. 

What cures inflation increases unemployment.  The economic strategy of the Government and the Federal Reserve Board over the past few years, has been an assault on the problem of inflation.  High interest rates and the attempt to reduce public welfare have been partially successful in checking inflation.  But they have also resulted in the worst unemployment record since the Great Depression.  If we wish to reduce unemployment, we will have to risk more inflation.  There is no present single cure for both. 

Tax cuts do not work.  The tax cuts of supply side economics are not working.  Government revenues are declining and government deficits are ballooning.  Military and welfare costs are rising.  Promised private investment in job-producing enterprises has not been forthcoming.  If the public debt continues to grow massively, interest rates will go up fast as the government borrows most of the available money.  We cannot have our cake and eat it. We have to pay for what we buy. 

We have to choose between welfare and jobs.  The strained resources of the government, on all levels, cannot meet both the welfare demands of an aging society and the necessity to create new jobs and to provide job training;.  Right now, if the government has to make choices, it should invest its money in training young people for professions of the future and not in improved maintenance of the elderly.  Futuristic education is the key to our survival and to the preservation of our standard of living  Old industries will move to the parts of the world where labor is cheap.  Innovative industries will be able to sustain an expensive workforce. 

Government planning and initiative are required.  Private enterprise has always needed government help.  It still does.  The public authorities have to direct the use of available money.  It has to make sure that it is not gobbled up in useless corporate mergers.  It has to assign it to innovative job-producing businesses that will be able to compete on the markets of the future.  Passive withdrawal from intervention is to court disaster.  If we do not tamper with the marketplace, others will.  We need a long-run plan for the investment of our resources. 

Abortion and school prayer are diversions from the real issues.  Since the economic problems often appear unsolvable, it is tempting for politicians to divert public attention from the real issues and to play the role of moral crusader.  The danger is that in the attempt to hide from the economic dilemmas, the guarantees of civil liberties and a secular state, which are part of our constitutional heritage, will be sacrificed for short run political advantage.  The dignity and integrity of all politicians are going to be sorely tested in the near future. 

Nuclear arms control is an important new movement on the political scene.  The campaign against the creation and use of nuclear weapons is a new popular movement which crosses conventional partisan ones and which will not quickly go away.  It is the successor to the environmental passion of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.  It is an expression of continued public resentment of the military authorities, who lost so much credibility during the Vietnam war.  The entry of a traditional conserative institution, like the Roman Catholic Church, into the fray makes the campaign more than another extracurricular activity of peripheral liberals and radicals. 

Peace and the economy go together.  Economic recovery is not possible unless government expenditures are cut and government deficits shrink.  Military expenses are one of the major reasons for the out-of-control budget.  Even if we reduce welfare money to a bare minimum it is still too much.  Many conservatives are caught in a bind.  They want both a strong economy and the Cold War.  But economic recovery will take place only if we trim the military budget. 

Negotiating arms reductions with the Soviet Union is not distinct from our economic program.  It is part and parcel of our economic strategy.  Neither Russia nor America can afford the arms race. 

Ethics and women are important constituencies.  Playing to a white male Angle-Saxon audience is no longer a winning political style.  There are too many aroused women, non-whites and non-Anglsaxons to play that game.  Government leaders can no longer patronize the ‘outsiders’.  There are too many of them. 

Most Americans are in the Center.  What makes our democratic system work is that our citizens are not polarized into the Right and the Left.  Most of us are in the Center-favoring a marriage of free enterprise with mild government intervention-preferring individual freedom to religious dogmatism-choosing negotiation to belligerence.  Moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats are in the end, the most successful politicians.  That it is sometimes hard to tell the difference is a good sign. 

These ten realities are the unavoidable facts our new elected Congressmen and legislators will have to deal. 

Israel after the Election

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 3, Summer 1996

The Israeli election is over, but the shock is not. If we are committed to the peace process, how do we live with a Likud victory? What does the election of Benjamin Netanyahu mean? What are the consequences we need to confront? What is an appropriate response? 

The election took place amid a peace effort that had been going on for more than three years. Agreements had been signed with the Palestianian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan. Gaza had been evacuated. Six major urban areas and the the West Bank had been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. A Palestianian police force had been organized. An election for a Palestinian president and parliament had been held. Joint economic projects between Israel and Jordan had been launched. Dozens of Third World countries had ended their boycott of Israel. Investors were stimulating the economy. Israeli troops were about to depart from Hebron. 

The election took place amid still-fresh memories of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and even more vivid memories of fundamentalist terrorism. The militants were determined to undermine the peace process. Israel responded by striking massively at Lebanon. A tragic accident turned retaliation into a public relations disaster. 

The election featured an innovation. Until 1996 the choice of prime minister was up to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The people elected members of the Knesset, and the Knesset, in turn, chose the head of the government. The prime minister was usually the leader of the largest party in the Knesset. This time there were two elections: one for the Knesset and one, American-style, for the head of the government. 

This change, which was intended to enhance the authority of the prime minister, should have been accompanied by an American- or British-style system of parliamentary constituencies. Such a move would have eliminated small parties, created a two-party system, and made the prime minister the leader of a majority party. But the small parties in the Knesset insisted on retaining proportional representation, and the result was a political monstrosity. As in the past, the victorious prime minister might end up as the leader of a minority party and would have to paste together a coalition of small parties in order to govern; but now, small parties would proliferate because the people’s vote for representatives in the Knesset was no longer connected to their preference for prime minister. 

That is exactly what happened. Netanyahu was elected prime minister, but his Likud party came in second in the parliamentary running, with only thirty-two members. Under the old system the Labor Party, with thirty-four members, would have been invited to organize the government, and the peace process would have continued. But Netanyahu is now the prime minister regardless of the size of his party in the Knesset. The election also enhanced the Orthodox representation because Orthodox Jews no longer had to vote Likud to get a Likud prime minister. The Orthodox vote in the Knesset is now at an all-time high of twenty-three. The Knesset is hopelessly fragmented. The new system is worse than the old. 

Furthermore, Netanyahu won by only one percentage point. While many observers point out that he won a clear majority of the Jewish vote, that observation illustrates the problemL the Arabs who voted for Peres are not regarded as “real” Israelis. This response, the closeness of the vote, and the rise of Orthodox political power have exacerbated the resentment and despair of supporters of the peace process. 

Certain realities seem clear. 

Israel is changing. The secular rein of the original Zionists is fading. The religious sector is growing in numbers and influence. The Oriental immigration and the Six Day War started a chain of consequences that undermined secular strength. Most Sephardic Jews are not pious, but they are religious by sentiment. And the acquisition of the West Bank, with its traditional shrines, brought the militant Orthodox to Israel. 

The Sephardic vote has returned to its familiar place on the Right. (In Israel, the rich vote liberal and the poor vote conservative; nationalism and religion are more important issues to many Israelis than economic ones.) Terrorism reawakened the historic distatse for and fear of Arabs among the Oriental Jews. The Shas party, the voice of the Sephardic Orthodox, jumped from six Knesset members to ten on the strength of sacred amulets and the promise of a better afterlife. 

The gulf between secular and religious Israel is widening. The secular want peace; the religious want land. The secular want personal freedom; the religious want conformity to traditional norms. The secular value science and democracy; the religious value faith and authority. In many ways Jewish fundamentalists are closer to Muslim fundamentalists then they are to Jewish secularists. The handing over of education and culture into Orthodox hands will aggravate the confrontation as secular Jews join forces against the revived power of militant Orthodoxy. 

Netanyahu does not believe in the peace process. But, because of external pressure, especially from the United States, he cannot avoid it. He has to publicly support peace, although he may privately oppose it. Without a Palestinian state there will be no peace. Netanyahu and his allies are unalterably opposed to such a state. No matter what is said, that reality undermines the peace process that Shimon Peres and Rabin began. Verbal courtesies will not be able to cover up the incompatibility of agendas. The Palestinians and the Arab world will not settle for cliches. 

The peace process will unravel. Hebron will not be fully evacuated. The “liberated” cities of the West Bank will become depressed ghettos surrounded and intimidated by Israeli troops. The departure of Orthodox settlers from the West Bank will stop, and new Orthodox settlements will be encouraged. The Palestinian economy will become the yo-yo of the Israeli government. The authority of Yasser Arafat will vanish. King Hussein of Jordan, fearful of his own Palestinians, will withdraw his enthusiasm for reconciliation. Arab moderates, unable to rely on Israeli cooperation, will turn back to militant Arab nationalists for safety, support, and solidarity. The confrontation in Lebanon will grow more intense. Likud will try to make a deal with the fundamentalist Hamas, exchanging access to Israeli jobs for an end to terrorism. Such an outrageous agreement would bring together two hard line opponents, which hate each other but are mutually opposed to the kind of Palestinian state that Arafat, Arab moderates, and Israeli “peaceniks” envision. 

Peace with Syria is out. It most likely would have been impossible even if Peres won. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad can justify his repressive government only by war with Israel. Peace would leave him exposed to the dangers of democracy and open borders. But now Assad will have a public justification of his confrontational position and his refusal to rein in the terrorist Shiites of Lebanon. He will also continue to cozy up to Arab moderates, who will become increasingly frustrated with the peace process, and he will simultaneously continue his liaison with Iran. 

Arab moderates will be in great danger. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek has to face a continuing civil war with fundamentalists. Hussein of Jordan has to contend with militant Palestinians. Maintaining their power will not be easy. They are very vulnerable to radical takeovers. One of the main reasons for Israeli support of the peace process has been to guarantee a friendly Egypt and a friendly Jordan. If they become hostile, no successful repression of the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza can provide for Israeli security. Forty million Egyptians mobilized by fundamentalist propaganda would spell the end of the Jewish state. Only deluded Jewish militants imagine that an Israei atomic bomb will prove a deterrent. 

Terrorism will continue. Even if Likud and Hamas make a deal, the Hezbollah in Lebanon will continue its campaign, supported by Iran though not by public opinion. Likud will point to terrorism  as justfication of its reluctance to make concessions. And the refusal to make concessions will, in turn, fuel more terrorism. 

The Israeli economy, currently booming because of the peace process, will slow down. Foreign investors will grow afraid. Military expenditures will rise. Many Third World countries will gradually withdraw their support. Many Diaspora Jews, alienated by Orthodox control, will cease their financial subsidies. 

The United States remains the only real force that can restrain Netanyahu and his allies. The American alliance is not trivial. It is the only firm foreign connection that Israel possesses. Netanyahu knows that Clinton preferred Peres, but he also knows that he needs American good will and that American strategic interests in the Middle East dictate support of the peace process. The unraveling of peace would enhance the power of Muslim fundamentalists and threaten American access to oil. Still, there is no guarantee that American pressure can sustain the peace process. Netanyahu has to find a balance between American pressure and the demands of his own extremists. Foreign minister David Levy is a moderate, but Arik Sharon, who managed to enter the cabinet at the last minute, is not. 

The peace process began during the Bush administration through American pressure on a reluctant Shamir. To avoid the no-win results of continuing a war, such pressure is needed again. American Jews need to encourage their government to apply it.