The U.S., Israel, and the Paralysis of Extremism


I find myself slipping into despair. The bookends of politics in the U.S. and politics in Israel have unmistakable similarities that portend a steady decline in the quality of life in these countries, as the two respective governments fail to address critical needs of their citizenries. In both cases, failures derive from political processes being hijacked by the most extreme elements of their respective societies, with the concurrence of an electorate that either tacitly or complicitly fails to constrain the extremes’ excesses.

Israel first: I come at this issue as a secular American Jew. I’m a champion of the view that the world needs a Jewish state as a safe haven for Jews. I also see a two-state solution as about the only long run pathway for Israel ultimately to survive in peace and harmony. The long run seems out of reach, however, given the current tensions. It saddens me to say that Israel has to respond to the terrors of Hamas’s rocket attacks. At the same time, those recent attacks appear to have been precipitated by provocative Israeli police actions at Muslim holy sites as well as aggressive efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

At the heart of this ongoing conflict is the fact that extremists on both sides have successfully sabotaged any productive diplomatic solution. On the Palestinian side, Hamas has yet to accept the idea of Israel’s right to exist. As recently as 2017 with a revision of their charter, Hamas committed to the liberation of all of Palestine and named Israel the Zionist enemy. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, under the leadership of Netanyahu, Jewish settlements have expanded on the West Bank, making a two-state outcome that much more problematic.

The Palestinians haven’t had an election since 2006, which left Hamas controlling Gaza and the Palestinian Authority controlling the West Bank — in both areas with some level of involvement/interference/moderation by Israel (understandable, in my mind, due to the security considerations of Israel). As a consequence of multiple elections with assorted coalitions, Bibi Netanyahu has been Israel’s prime minister since 2009. At present, yet another coalition appears to be in the offing, this one booting out Netanyahu as prime minister. The bad news is that despite forming what may be the most diverse coalition ever, Israel seems to be poised to substitute one right wing extremist prime minister for another. The same full-steam ahead effort to expand settlements further jeopardizing movement toward a two-state solution seems likely to be in store.

Now the U.S.: Small “d” democracy appears to be a relic of history. I remember the school yard chant “Majority Rules!” which no longer seems to have any traction in America. Instead, we have an electoral college that overrides the popular vote, senate rules that allow minority views to disallow the will of the majority, and the entire population of Washington DC — with a population that exceeds both Wyoming and Vermont — without representation in the Senate.

Republicans incessantly point to the “extremist” views of their Democratic counterparts to justify their opposition, but this characterization is hyperbole. The Republicans in Congress are the extremists. The Democrats’ platform is dedicated to improving the lives of the citizenry. Republicans are free to question the efficacy of the Democratic platform and to vote against it, but applying a coordinated effort to reject literally anything and everything that Democrats propose is a scorched earth policy, which is exactly what the current Republican leadership is orchestrating.

It’s revealing — and appalling — that Republicans in Congress can’t find any way to accommodate to a bipartisan examination of the January 6th assault. By rejecting this commission, Congress is paving the way for recurrences of unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud and similar violent episodes in the American saga.

The reluctance to allow for Federal oversight of elections to protect against voter disenfranchisement is equally distressing. Given the extensive history of Jim Crow, it should be obvious that concerns about voter subjugation aren’t paranoia. They derive from lived experiences; and taking a dismissive attitude toward these concerns is abhorrent.

Congress’s posturing with respect to both of these recent legislative proposals is reflective of a failed system; and unfortunately, under current circumstances, I don’t see a way out. Unless or until the Republican electorate repudiates the direction of the current Republican leadership, we can look to more of the same gridlock that we’ve been witnessing.

Whether in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or recurring Democratic-Republican partisan deadlocks, responsibility is shared by (a) the extremists of both sides — those who steadfastly hold to their world view, giving no consideration to, or empathy for, those on the opposing side and (b) the spineless, cowardly cohorts who fail to call out these extremists and allow the extremists’ vitriol to pollute political discourse. These partners have managed to allow the extremists to play the dominant role in setting the course of history.

Unless the U.S. and Israel somehow change the rules or the players, it ain’t gonna get better.

Kawaller holds a Ph.D. in economics from Purdue University.