At key junctures, Israelis have made choices that averted problems suffered by other countries.
The news of the last few weeks hasn’t exactly been encouraging. The interim agreement with Iran has given it major sanctions relief in exchange for minuscule concessions that delay its nuclear breakout time by at most a month. Rocket attacks are once again occurring almost daily, which, as one analyst noted, means another military operation in Gaza probably isn’t far off. America is demanding dangerous concessions to the Palestinian Authority, while Europe is threatening boycotts.
Yet looking around the world, my overwhelming feeling these past few weeks has been one of gratitude. For many problems now bedeviling other countries could easily have been Israel’s as well, had certain Israelis not made different choices at critical junctures.
Take, for instance, the three-year-old nation of South Sudan, where bitter political rivals who cooperated uneasily to win independence have now turned on each other, killing thousands and displacing over half a million. Such a civil war could easily have erupted in Israel, too: Barely a month after declaring independence, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered his Haganah militia to fire on an arms ship belonging to the rival Irgun militia, killing 16 people.
But Irgun leader Menachem Begin rejected his members’ demand for vengeance, recognizing that civil war would destroy the new state. And the Irgun obeyed, sparing Israel South Sudan’s bloody fate.
Nor do the parallels end there. In South Sudan, as in many other countries, the civil war stemmed from a winner-take-all mentality that made the opposition fear discrimination and exclusion. In Israel, Begin’s Herut party indeed suffered such exclusion: For almost 30 years, until it won its first election, Herut’s members were barred from the civil service, discriminated against throughout the large swathes of the economy controlled by the state and publicly vilified as “fascists.” Like the Communists, Herut was branded beyond the pale by Ben-Gurion.
Yet throughout this time, Begin’s commitment to democracy never wavered: He insisted that his followers uphold the democratic rules despite the tilted playing field, thereby sparing Israel South Sudan’s fate.
But if Begin was the unsung hero of the state’s first three decades, no less noteworthy was the Left’s behavior after his party, by then renamed Likud, won the 1977 election. To understand why, consider Thailand.
In Thailand, as in Israel, the old elites controlled the state for decades – until suddenly, they didn’t. Begin gained power when Sephardi immigrants, scorned by the old elites, grew numerous enough to swing an election; Thaksin Shinawatra’s party gained power by winning over the rural poor whom the old elites had scorned. In both cases, this demographic factor made the shock doubly severe: Not only had the elites, who thought the state was theirs by right, suddenly been ousted, but the demographics meant their ouster could easily be permanent.
In Thailand, however, the old elites refused to accept democracy’s verdict. After Shinawatra was reelected in 2005, tens of thousands of demonstrators virtually shut down Bangkok. New elections were called, but when Shinawatra won again, the Constitutional Court, aligned with the old elites, invalidated the results. Then, before repeat elections could be held in October 2006, the army intervened to “save the country”: It deposed Thaksin’s government and installed one comprised of the old elites.
The following year, the Constitutional Court outlawed Shinawatra’s party and slapped an electoral ban on its leaders. When a successor party nevertheless won the 2007 election, the demonstrations resumed, even shutting down Bangkok’s international airport. The court then ousted the new premier and dissolved the successor party, along with two of its coalition partners, enabling the old elites to finally form another government. Unsurprisingly, Shinawatra’s supporters then paralyzed the capital with their own mass demonstrations.
Eventually, in 2011, new elections were held, and yet another Shinawatra successor party, headed by his sister, won. Now, the old elites are once again paralyzing the capital with mass demonstrations – to demand that democracy be abolished and replaced by an unelected “people’s council.” The government tried to pacify the demonstrators by cutting short its term and calling new elections, but the demonstrators have vowed to stop the vote from taking place. And the courts, once again, are supporting them.
Israel’s old elites never attempted anything remotely comparable. Granted, they have sometimes used the courts, or international pressure, to impose their agenda on the country in ways I find problematic and anti-democratic. But Likud victories never prompted a military coup, even though the old elites dominated the army. The courts, another bastion of the old elites, never dreamed of outlawing Likud or its coalition partners. And despite loudly mourning the loss of “their” country and voicing existential fears that demographic changes make the loss irreversible, the old elites have never suggested abolishing democracy. Instead, their parties diligently compete in every election – and sometimes win. Like Begin, at the moment of truth, they put the
good of the country first.
Then, finally, there’s the problem now preoccupying most of Europe and Asia, and even many Muslim countries, like Iran and Turkey: the dearth of children. Steep declines in birthrates, to below replacement levels, mean all these countries face a future where too few workers must support too many retirees, and they are wondering, desperately, how to cope. This issue is now “front and center” in Germany, as the New York Times reported last year, while Asia’s aging even made the agenda of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Israel is one of very few developed countries to have no such problem: The Israeli Jewish fertility rate is 2.99 children per woman, and even excluding Haredim, it’s 2.6 – far above the replacement rate of 2.1 (the Israeli Muslim rate is currently 3.37, but is expected to fall well below the Jewish rate by 2035). Unlike their peers in other developed countries, Israelis of every stripe – left and right, religious and secular – are still choosing to have children.
Thus not only has Israel successfully navigated many pitfalls in the past, but unlike much of the developed world, it also has a future. And amid all the very real problems it faces, that, surely, is reason to be grateful.