Washington is consumed and distracted by partisan bickering over the debt ceiling, so that taxes, Social Security, and Medicare all are languishing in the heat of another embarrassing, polarized, and politicized congressional summer.
This situation was made even more poignant last week when NPR reporter Cokie Roberts announced she was flying out to speak at the funeral of former First Lady Betty Ford. Roberts said she would address a topic suggest by Mrs. Ford five years earlier: what had happened to American politics since the days when Republican Minority Leader Gerald Ford and Democratic Majority Leader Hale Boggs — Roberts’ father — could be close friends on Capitol Hill.
Israel is also sweltering under its own internal structural problems. The Israeli parliamentary system is very different from the American, and Israel governments are rightfully focused on security issues. When it is able to take a breather, the current government tends to focus on partisan issues which frustrate and alienate those outside the ruling coalition, both at home and abroad.
In Israel, housing and food prices continue to rise while government subsidies fall. Cuts in education are beginning to have a profound effect on society. Meanwhile the cutting edge issue for the next academic year will be whether kindergarten children have memorized the Israeli national anthem. Polarization between the secular and the haredi populations continue to grow, as do tensions between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.
The current climate looks like this: Plans for a meeting of the international Quartet fell apart. There was no consensus to elevate the pressure on the Israelis or the Palestinians, given that the basic conditions for conversation appear not to be in place. The forthcoming Palestinian recognition battle at the UN seems likely to be postponed or deferred, with — at the worst — a General Assembly vote. All parties wish to avoid a Security Council vote and an inevitable United States veto. Within the Obama administration, there is no will or political upside to push for another confrontation with the Israelis, especially after all the heat generated by the May meetings between the president and the prime minister.
Add to this malaise the sad realization that the Arab Spring is sputtering out, as The New York Times reported in detail on July 17. There is no leadership. The energy of the reform movements have dissipated — a literal and figurative victim of the hot summer. The power of the military (in Egypt), money (in Saudi Arabia), and autocracy (in Libya and Syria) has defied the promise of the first half of 2011. The likelihood of real democratic change in the Arab world seems close to nil. Despite elevated expectations among the citizenry, serious political change appears unlikely.
If ever there were an opportunity for Israel to differentiate itself from the Arab world, this would be it. And yet the heat seems to have gone to its leaders’ heads. The Knesset enacted a law last week that would effectively outlaw any boycott movement against Israel or West Bank settlements. The legislation is an affront to basic free speech, the essence of any true democracy, and something American Jews have viewed as part of the fundamental protections that have ensured Jewish interests throughout history. Not only does the legislation disturb American Jews, the fact that it outlaws “selected” boycotts is even further infuriating.
Israel has rightly expressed its concerns over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement against Israel that appears to be developing and expanding in Europe and even in the U.S. The aim of many of these boycotters, and much of their leadership, is nothing less than the delegitimization of Israel.
Israel’s selective anti-boycott law, however, targets its own, homegrown critics of certain Israeli policies — namely, the settlements movement — and is aimed at appeasing the hardliners in Netanyahu’s coalition. His return political payment from these forces is yet to be determined. Even if the High Court reverses the law, the alienation that it has caused is pointless.
The First Family together with the Congress will embark on its traditional August vacations once the debt crisis is resolved in Washington, no doubt with political gamesmanship that will do little to address the essential issues. The summer session of the Knesset also concludes in Jerusalem with no action on the core societal needs. One senses one is watching democratic governments at their least effective.