That’s something to remember when you arrive there next week.
Israel has a government, elected by its people in a free, fair, open and democratic election. Multiple parties representing widely divergent points of view met a wildly diverse electorate through free media and open debate. This is no stultified two-party affair with a libertarian insurgency.
Israel will be the only country you visit in the region, this time or any other, that has a fully democratic system. Do not be swayed by the “apartheid” slander. Citizens of Israel are Jews, Moslems, Christians, and Druze, each with religious and non-religious elements. Their background is Ethiopian, Russian, North and South American, European, and derived from every country of the Arab world plus Persia; watch Rita before you go. There are left and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists. (Surprise: some of the socialists are right wing and some of the capitalists are left wing, since left and right in Israel are not only economic values, but relate to land and security. Some of the security hawks are economic leftists.) Every single one of them has a vote — and they use it.
Remember, the Palestinians could have had that, too. Or could they? Abbas’s single elected term ran out in January 2009; people who stay after that are dictators, not “elected leaders.” Journalists and protests against PA corruption are stifled with an increasingly heavy hand. Hamas is overtly intolerant of the Christian minority in Gaza, and the West Bank’s Christians are leaving as well; the brave ones talk about why. A key Palestinian demand is that territory they may one day have for a state must be Judenrein. Why would they think you would find that acceptable?
The new Israeli government will be without the Haredi parties, but don’t mistake that for a government without religious members. The new government will be focused on income inequality, debt, unemployment, and the distribution of the burdens of citizenship, but don’t mistake that for a government without red lines on security — with the Palestinians, with Iran and increasingly with Syria/Lebanon. The new government contains many members who are skeptical of progress with the Palestinians, but don’t mistake that for lack of interest in peace. There are members of the government who believe in a “two state solution,” but don’t mistake that for 1967 borders. Jerusalem is a point of consensus in a country where consensus comes hard.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is not your counterpart; he is Head of Government, you are Head of State. You, of course, know that. You also know that he is not of the same party as Israel’s President. But do not mistake him for Senator McConnell — minority leader in a Senate that holds part of one-third of American power — or for Rep. Boehner, Speaker of a House that holds part of the same one-third. Power resides in the Knesset that Netanyahu leads. Your friend, Shimon Peres, is largely a ceremonial president, and he will represent the country, not the government or any party, when he presents you with your medal.
The Israelis you meet will be polite, Mr. President, because you represent the most successful experiment in democracy the world has known and because you represent the American people, considered by Israelis to be deep, lasting friends with shared core values. Your personal story is fascinating to them. (Was Yityish Aynaw really invited to dinner because she wrote about your influence on her life? If it was because she is fabulously beautiful, well, that’s OK, too.) Just remember your personal story isn’t why you’re there.
At the same time, the Israelis will be nervous because your administration has the unenviable job of making sense of the Arab revolution that in some cases revealed fault lines going back to French-British colonial shenanigans after WWI, and in some cases resulted from the inability of the Arab states and Iran to fashion open and tolerant societies for their own people. Israel lives much closer to the results of that revolution than does the United States, and with much less margin for error. From Israel’s perspective, if not yours, the U.S. has already made errors.
Limited government may not be your thing, sir, but to some extent Israelis voted for this particular governing constellation because there is a limit to what they believe they can control: a national school curriculum, fairer distribution of national service and income, and maybe economic progress. Every government has a responsibility to protect the citizens and most Israelis believe theirs did a reasonable job in the face of Hamas rockets last November.
On the other hand, Israelis can’t make Iran give up its drive for nuclear capability, or make Palestinians understand that Israel is a legitimate, permanent part of the region, or make you change your mind about where Jews can build houses. They can’t give themselves tolerant neighbors at peace internally or externally. They can’t make Europe act on its understanding that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization or make the UN a friendlier place.
For all those things, Mr. President, they need and want your help. They would appreciate your understanding and they sincerely hope you aren’t coming to tell them what to do.