Be Grateful That He's Not Subtle About It

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order in the Oval Office of the White House, Saturday, January 28, 2017. 

Strange as it may sound, I'm jealous of progressive Americans as they contend with the Trump dystopia. At least the assault on your democracy—and on your most basic sense of what country you live in—is coming all at once.

For an Israeli, this is a reason for envy. The gradual offensive against our own democracy has made resistance far more difficult. Nonetheless, you may be able to learn something from our experience—not so much from our successes, but from our mistakes.

I know that three months after election night you still can't wrap your mind around it. The rest of the world—or at least my corner of it—watches America the way someone watches a car racing over a cliff: horrified and riveted. I can't escape by switching from English to Hebrew news. Trump, spelled from right to left, is all over the Israeli media. On Sundays, the top public radio station always finds an excuse for playing the audio of the previous night's SNL send-off of the Trump clique. The message is: This is really happening to America.

But we also see the millions who marched the day after the inauguration, and the instant protests at the airports a week later, after Trump's anti-Muslim order. This may be small comfort, but if an authoritarian just took over your country, be thankful it happened overnight and that he's clumsy. So far, he's the best organizer of opposition.

The erosion of Israel's democracy has happened so much more slowly that that the same degree of shock has been rare, and has never been sustained. I can name turning points, but some are more obvious now than they were at the time.

In retrospect, things began coming apart with the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967. But to the Israeli public, it looked like a moment of redemption: a miraculous military victory over Arab armies that seemed ready to destroy Israel. Following the war, the politically gridlocked government never decided on a policy of permanent rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The first settlements weren't part of a clear strategy.

At the beginning, there were a very few Israelis who warned that ongoing occupation would corrode and destroy Israeli democracy: the very young novelist Amos Oz, the very crotchety philosopher Yishayahu Leibowitz, and the justice minister who warned—but only in a closed cabinet meeting—against turning the West Bank into a colony. These diagnoses of a slow degenerative disease were rare, and they were easy to miss.

Fast forward to the fall of 1995. The first Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, had made the occupation into a white-hot reality for Israelis. Yitzhak Rabin, the general who'd conquered the West Bank, was now the prime minister negotiating peace with the Palestinians. On November 4, a right-wing religious ideologue assassinated Rabin. The foreign minister, Shimon Peres, became prime minister, ran for re-election the following May—and lost by less than 1 percent to Benjamin Netanyahu. That election doomed the Oslo peace process.

The assassination was more than the murder of one man. The assassin, Yigal Amir, intended to trump the democratic process with bullets. As leader of the Likud, Netanyahu had fed the right-wing fury against Rabin and Peres that helped Amir believe he'd be a hero.

But Peres's lack of charisma, and lack of a ground game, were normal reasons for a candidate to lose within a democratic process. Netanyahu did, after all, win a majority. It was genuinely difficult to make an unambiguous argument that democracy had taken a bullet to the heart.

In his first term, Netanyahu tried to delegitimize the left, and was tainted by allegations of scandal. Mostly, he was just an ineffective leader. The parliamentary system worked: He was forced into early elections and lost.

Since returning to power in 2009, Netanyahu's disregard for democratic norms has been more blatant. On Israel's most recent election day, when Netanyahu thought he might lose, he rallied low-enthusiasm right-wing voters with a video in which he proclaimed that Arab voters were “advancing in large numbers on polling places,” as if the very fact that they were voting was a hostile act. Several years ago his coalition passed a law making it illegal to call for a boycott of Israel, or even of Israeli settlements. His government has succeeded in portraying Breaking the Silence, an organization of combat veterans that publicizes soldiers' testimony on serving in the occupied territories, as an enemy of the state.

But crass as Netanyahu is, he's a hundred times smoother than Trump. Little as he respects democratic limits on power, he has moved gradually enough that each public fuss dies out before the next begins.

Hence I say to my American friends: I envy you for your troubles.

But I also have some lessons from our experience. One is not to allow the fuss to burn out. In 2011, protests broke out in Israel against Netanyahu's economic policies, and escalated into marches of hundreds of thousands of people. The failure to turn protests into a lasting, organized movement meant that enthusiasm slipped away as quickly as it built.

Another lesson is not to treat whole groups of voters as too benighted to be worthy of respect or recruitment. In Israel, it's true that most religious Jews are on the right, and that the Likud has drawn much of its support from Jews with roots in Muslim countries. In response, many Israelis on the left have developed an antipathy—more bluntly, a bigotry—toward those voters. This serves only to make the dividing lines more rigid, and to make potential swing voters swing rightward. To avoid that mistake, fill in the name of whichever group you're angry at, and teach yourself to get over it.

And to Democratic politicians, I suggest looking hard at the consistent failure of the Israeli Labor Party to accept that it can't moderate the right by sharing power. The political systems work very differently, but the underlying principle is the same: The autocrats aren't interested in compromise. They are not playing by the old rules in which competing parties find common ground for the good of the country. They're interested in holding and misusing power. Working with them grants them undeserved legitimacy.

So act like an opposition. Trump, with his incompetence, with his lack of subtlety, is helping you. Don't throw away the only thing he's giving you.

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