For months, a terrible dilemma vexed four principled patriots. To Bibi or Not to Bibi, that was the question. When two decided to Bibi, and two decided not, their uneasy alliance blew up. Yair Lapid and Boogie Ya’alon could not stomach working with Bibi, justifiably. Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi could not bear standing by during a pandemic and electoral stalemate, understandably. So they divorced. But now, they must stop fuming and cooperate, working from within and without, united by a common vision of Zionist muscular moderation.
As Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister, it should be easier for Gantz to make his mark, yet he risks losing his soul – like most people who have allied with Benjamin Netanyahu. As Opposition Leader, it will be easier for Lapid to maintain his integrity, yet he risks becoming irrelevant – like most people who have opposed Bibi.
Gantz should enter the government touting his exit plan, primed to blast any expressions of bigotry, block any subversion of democracy, and boost Israeli unity during this crisis – which is why he chose to cooperate with Netanyahu. Now, before the Bibi-antics begin, Gantz and his allies must map out how to follow through on these moral issues which transcend politics.
First, Gantz must demonstrate zero-tolerance for demonization and bigotry. Like a teacher handling a juvenile delinquent, Gantz should spell out for Netanyahu that at the first whiff of Arab bashing, Gantz will object, privately at first, then increasingly loudly, vehemently. Persistent Arab-baiting will prompt Gantz’s party to disrupt business as usual, even contemplate resignation, until the offenders apologize. Lapid aptly notes that using “fear and hate as weapons in the battle of ideas” has been Netanyahu’s “unforgivable sin,” polarizing Israelis, leaving us more tolerant of intolerance and intolerant of our fellow citizens. Gantz must not collaborate in such evils – while articulating a critique as eloquent as Lapid’s.
Similarly, Netanyahu must stop his demagogic attacks on national institutions and his subversive tricks to weaken Israeli democracy. Gantz must defend democracy from within, calling out divisive rhetoric, while sabotaging attempts to sabotage the Knesset, the courts, the police. He must be prepared: wargame likely scenarios, it’s going to happen.
Finally, with Gantz as Defense Minister and Ashkenazi as Foreign Minister, the two allies will occupy the two jobs beyond prime minister that most facilitate national unity. When we look beyond our borders, when we are attacked, or when our kids enlist, we bury our differences. Constructive tone-setting, true leadership, could start healing Israel from the Bibi years, even before they end. For example, regardless of what they think about annexation, Gantz and Ashenazi cannot allow Netanyahu to use the Corona-crisis as a cover to force through such a dramatic move hastily.
Ultimately, this discussion is less about Israel’s image abroad – it’s about Israel’s soul – and Gantz’s.
If Gantz has to know when to fight and not just unite, Lapid has to know when to unite and not just fight. Lapid should study the greatest Israeli opposition leader Menachem Beign – who had 29 years of practice. Begin believed “without an opposition, there can be no democracy, without it, the essence of human liberty is in danger.” But he reassured Yitzhak Rabin and other prime ministers that “we both have the same goal. Despite the differences between us, we are one people.”
For most, such abstract paradoxes would confuse. But Lapid recently gave an important speech – “Only the Center Can Hold” — drawing a blueprint for effective opposition and constructive cooperation with his former allies, carving a path forward toward the post-Bibi era – may it come speedily. Rejecting the false choices between liberalism and nationalism, between democracy and Judaism, blasting right-wingers like Netanyahu who want “a Jewish state in which democracy is subservient to nationalism” and hyper-individualist left-wingers so hostile to nationalism they “would set us on the path to becoming a bi-national state,” Lapid boldly embraced the center. If “we take one of the sides – we lose our way,” he warned. Centrism offers the necessary balancing act.
Lapid understands “that we are complicated beings and that the role of government is to chart a course among the contradictions inherent in each of us as individuals and as a collective.” He endorses what the Menachem Begin Center’s Paul Gross calls “an inclusive nationalism,” what I call “muscular moderation.” Resisting the lures of formulas, rejecting extremes, remaining principled, centrists sift, balance, juggle – seeking alliance and building consensus. Israeli centrism puts democracy front and center – as a method and a value, while championing the Zionist building blocks that make Israel work: “Community, tradition, historical memory, love of our homeland.”
This communal, centrist democracy “brings down … the walls isolating religious communities” and “the significant walls of isolation of western individualism…. We are not being asked to place our nation’s democratic identity before its national identity; we are choosing its democratic identity as the highest expression of its national identity.”
Lapid essentially proclaims: choose community, build unity, practice decency. Unlike most modern politicians, Lapid offers a vision not just a strategy. By working together, Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, Lapid and Gantz can do what they failed to do during three campaigns: move beyond ABB – anybody but Bibi — to the ABCs of a nuanced, centrist approach ushering in a new era flourishing thanks to our old values. To achieve that, they’ll have to work together, albeit separately, and work hard separately, to keep us together.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.