Commentary Magazine


Israel’s Loyal Opposition?

Having become almost entirely inaudible within her own country, Tzipi Livni is looking for a new audience. She’s found it in the New York Times, where Israel’s Leader of the opposition put forth her own official response to President Obama’s Cairo speech.

Her central thesis is that for democracies to thrive in the Middle East, it is not enough for elections to be held. There needs to be an underlying worldview, a belief in liberty, a set of values that must be inculcated in a culture before one can call it democratic. This is perhaps the key paragraph:

I believe that democracy is about values before it is about voting. These values must be nurtured within society and integrated into the electoral process itself. We cannot offer international legitimacy for radical groups and then simply hope that elections and governance will take care of the rest. In fact, the capacity to influence radical groups can diminish significantly once they are viewed as indispensable coalition partners and are able to intimidate the electorate with the authority of the state behind them.

Livni is right, of course. There is no reason to legitimize Hamas or Hezbollah just because they’re taking part in elections — even if they win. This is an especially timely message today, as Lebanese go to the polls. But if the Times’s point was to show the world that Israel has voices that are different from the current hard-right-but-also-hard-left government, it failed. Livni’s article did not present a single idea that has not already been voiced by the Israeli center-right, most notably Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. In fact, the importance of creating the infrastructure for democracy — through education, law and order, and economic development, is the central point of his own prescription for peace with the Palestinians, and is likely to be the central feature of his major policy speech next week. For years, Natan Sharansky has been calling for a similar “bottom-up” approach to dealing with the region, and took issue with the Bush Administration’s elections-first approach to Iraq on precisely these grounds.

Which leaves us wondering: What was the point of the article? Was she trying to steal Netanyahu’s thunder by making it look like the ideas are her own? To distort Netanyahu’s views by implicitly suggesting that they are somehow different from her own?

Or maybe the explanation is something far less nefarious. Perhaps she is trying to show the Americans, particularly in the Obama administration, just how much of a consensus the current Israeli government’s views represent; that there really is such a thing as a “loyal opposition” — especially in the face of what Israel is currently facing around the world.