Power, Politics & People

A nationally prominent Orthodox spokesman calls Monica Lewinsky “a modern-day Queen Esther,” only half-kidding. A Northeastern Chabad rabbi says, deadpan, that Lewinsky was “sent by God.”

Their point is simple. L’affaire Lewinsky has removed the White House as a deciding factor in Middle East diplomacy, at least for now. Because Clinton’s personal involvement was the one thing keeping the moribund peace talks moving, hopes for a near-term breakthrough are now near zero. Hello land, goodbye peace.

Last week was supposed to be a watershed in the troubled tenure of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He came to Washington a wounded leader, expecting intense pressure from an unstoppable Bill Clinton. Enter Lewinsky and Zippergate, and the Middle East abruptly vanished from our screens. The pressure was off. Netanyahu flew home a hero, his poll numbers soaring while Clinton’s plummeted. Bibi had escaped yet another disaster, his coalition rescued as if by miracle. Monica as Queen Esther sounds about right.

It all feels like some absurd adolescent fantasy, but only because it is one. The fate of the world — not just Israel-Arab peacemaking but Iraq’s arms buildup and democracy in Cuba — is hostage to the alleged sexual appetites of America’s chief executive. Hostage, too, to the very real sexual obsessions of America’s voters. While the world watches in bemused horror, we bring our republic to the brink because of our outrage over a loose zipper.

Is there another country anywhere, the world asks, that would entrust its future to a callow baby boomer with too much charm and the morals of a tomcat — and then tie up his administration in an unending barrage of mudslinging?

Actually, there is one: Israel.

Clinton and Netanyahu have long been noted for their uncanny similarities. Both are young outsiders who took their countries’ establishments by storm. Both are dogged by character questions, leaving them forever dodging personal and political disaster. Both have an astonishing ability to rebound.

For all that, the Lewinsky affair hints at a profound difference. Clinton’s harshest critics focus obsessively on his personal flaws, yet his opposition is, at heart, political. Netanyahu’s critics speak mainly, shrilly, of his ideological sins, yet his opposition is, at heart, very personal.

Clinton’s toughest opponents are hard-core ideologues of the right, working tirelessly to nail him on personal sins that have nothing to do with governing. The reason is that there isn’t much in his governing they can object to. He’s adopted the Republican agenda. Ideological criticism now comes mainly from his own party.

Thanks to his enemies’ single-mindedness, Clinton’s presidency has become a sort of laboratory test for a central thesis in American politics: that character determines fitness to govern. Now we know. It doesn’t. You can have the morals of a junkyard dog, the personal judgment of a juvenile delinquent, and still lead America to five years of unparalleled prosperity and goodwill. Not that it does Clinton any good right now.

Netanyahu’s dilemma is the reverse. His enemies come from across the political spectrum, including most of his own party. His ideological program, a centrist mix of security and compromise, is indistinguishable from Labor’s. What provokes hatred among allies and foes is a very personal flaw: his impulse to see conspiracies everywhere, to hunker down and lash out. Nobody trusts Bibi because he trusts nobody.

Political scientist Daniel Elazar has taught that the United States and Israel share a special quality that sets them apart from other countries. Both are new nations, created by pilgrims and pioneers, each with a destiny beyond mere nationhood. France may be just France, Burma may be — well, Myanmar. America and Israel fancy themselves something more: bastion of democracy, flowering of Jewish redemption.

Their leadership agonies reflect, in part, the struggles of two young cities-on-a-hill to accept the reality of human frailty in an age of too much information. But the outcomes show a crucial difference. America is a constitutional democracy, renowned for stability, governed by three permanent, independent branches of government (four if you count the newest branch, existing solely to undermine the rest). Israel is a parliamentary democracy, reviled for its instability, its executive and courts subservient to a sovereign legislature.

But America pays a stiff price for stability. When a leader seems unfit, the system is brought to its knees. Parliamentary systems can change leaders when need be, simply by parliamentary vote, and then move on. Like skyscrapers, they have built-in flexibility to withstand buffeting from outside or in. America’s constitutional democracy, we keep learning, lacks that flexibility. Shake the top, and the foundation groans.

The lesson is particularly poignant right now. Israel recently reformed its system, moving toward the American model. The prime minister is elected in a popular vote. The reform, heavily backed by American Jewish money, was meant to weaken fringe parties and strengthen the executive.

The result was the opposite. Leadership races, now entirely personal, favor salesmanship over experience. The big parties, no longer central, have collapsed. Parliament is a jungle of tiny factions. And Netanyahu tries to negotiate the dangerous terrain — while Israel looks on, raptly waiting for his luck to run out.

Last week’s Washington trip promised to be the end of the road. Bibi was to face the moment of truth when Clinton demanded a second-stage withdrawal that would shatter his razor-thin coalition.

He was saved by the Belle.

If trading land for peace is your idea of a devil’s pact, divine intervention must seem like a reasonable explanation. For the rest of us, the last word belongs to Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea: “We all thought, naïvely, that the fate of the peace process was in the hands of a Jewish girl from Prague named Madeleine Albright.” Right idea, wrong Jewish girl.

J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.