December 11, 2019

Can the IDF Save Israel’s Democracy?

As I write this, it’s still not clear who will lead the Israeli government after the April 9 election. One thing that is clear, however, is that whenever Israelis vote, one question usually looms large: Which choice is more likely to keep us safe?  The bland word “security” doesn’t quite capture this existential human desire to stay alive.

But there is another issue facing Israelis that is also existential: Can their country remain a democracy in an extremely dangerous neighborhood? Specifically, can they separate from the 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank in order to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy?

When a value like “Staying a democracy” clashes with a value like “Staying safe,” that is when election choices become heart-wrenching. 

“Even Israelis who support a two-state solution,” Yossi Klein Halevi wrote recently in the Globe and Mail, “seek reassurance that their government will not recklessly endanger the country’s security with naive notions of ‘peace now.’ The Middle East of 2019 is not the arena for fulfilling dreams but of preventing nightmares.”

This nightmare, Halevi writes, is a “radical Palestinian state on the West Bank that would complete the encirclement of Israel by pro-Iranian forces – from Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border to Hamas on its southern border, along with Iranian bases in Syria.”

You can’t underestimate the power of this nightmare when you ask yourself why so many Israelis keep voting for hawkish right-wing coalitions. These Israelis are not peace-haters or even democracy-haters; they are, above all, danger-haters. They are deeply in tune with the existential threats that surround them.

They’re so in tune, in fact, that democracy itself can be seen as part of the danger. As Halevi writes, “Under conditions of intensifying siege, the far right’s warning that democratic norms threaten security resonate.”

Israel’s democracy, in other words, will never be secured until enough Israelis are willing to accept the security risks that this will entail.  

This is why the new, centrist Blue and White party is such a key development. The leader, Benny Gantz, is a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, and he is supported by two other former army chiefs, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi. For most of their lives, these army guys have lived and breathed Israeli security. If they ever decide that a risk is worth taking, many Israelis will follow them.

Unlike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is beholden to his uncompromising right-wing coalition partners, these Blue and White leaders embrace what Halevi calls “the entwined identities at the core of our national being as both a Jewish and a democratic state.” The party, he writes, is “hawkish on security but flexible on territorial compromise with the Palestinians.” 

Win or lose, in just a few months this centrist party has become a major political force in Israel. It is precisely because it is led by hard-nosed security hawks that it is uniquely positioned to make heart-wrenching compromises. At the very least, it would set Israel on the responsible path to remain a Jewish democracy, something Netanyahu, who has moved further to the right in recent years, doesn’t seem very eager to do.

The real drama of Israel is not its ability to survive, or its extraordinary scientific contributions to the world, or its humanitarian outreach, or its vibrant cultural scene. The real drama of Israel is how it has managed to maintain a free and open and democratic society while surrounded by enemies from all sides.

“Israel’s significance as a democratic state has been its ability to serve as a laboratory for what happens to democracy under conditions of extremity,” Halevi writes. “Against all odds, Israel has maintained flourishing democratic institutions like a vigorous supreme court and an irreverent media. The persistence of Israeli democracy has been a kind of miracle.”

He cautions, however, that “miracles cannot be taken for granted and require constant protection.”

“Staying safe” and “staying a democracy” are like two children. You love them both equally. You never want to choose between them. Israel, now more than ever, is facing this epic question: Can it keep both of these children alive?