Healthy Disagreement, Even in the Most Trying of Times

As the situation in Israel and Gaza continues to produce a seemingly endless series of tragedies beginning with the October 7 attacks, I have been surprised and relieved to notice one positive aspect of the public discussion, especially from within Israel.   Put simply, people are allowed to continue to disagree with each other, as opposed to being silenced into supporting whoever happens to be in charge at the moment.  I am of course not saying that the situation is not horrifying on every level, but there is value in noting when something is going well -- especially when so much else is falling apart.

A healthy and vigorous public debate is no small thing in a democracy, and it has always been a feature of the Israeli political culture, as far as I know.  On questions related to Israel, the conversation in Israel itself has always been unfettered and pointed, whereas American political discussion about Israel has always been stifled (and stifling).  Even in a country with such a strong tradition of open debate, however, one might have imagined that in the immediate aftermath of the killing of thousands of people, a curtain would have come down on dissent and discussion.

That is certainly what I expected, and I opined to a friend on October 8 -- when we were all in the immediate stages of struggling to comprehend the tragedy that had just happened -- that "from the standpoint of pure, cynical politics, this is a gift to Netanyahu.  And the cycle of violence will spin further out of control."  My friend's response was reassuring.  Acknowledging the likelihood of a very short-term rallying effect for the Israel government, he wrote that "Bush got re-elected in 2004 after he ignored evidence of 9/11 and then launched a disastrous war of choice against Iraq. That's not how it works in most places, including Israel, which has been much less forgiving of its political leaders following intelligence/military failures."

It surely is true that my cynical worry was based on the Bush II experience.  Although the rules are obviously different when a Democrat is President (when Republicans feel free to continue to insult and lie about their political bogeyman), when Democrats or independents tried in the early 2000's to say anything in opposition to Bush's disastrous decisions, the response was: "Why do you hate America?"  Even during the first Iraq War in the 1990's under Bush I, the mainstream press enforced orthodoxy by asking inane questions of dissenting Democrats like, "Don't you support the troops?"

That smear campaign was so effective that it became standard practice for every politician to preface every statement by assuring everyone that they supported the troops -- even though the Republicans' version of supporting the troops was to put them in deadly, often impossible situations.  Hillary Clinton might well have been the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee if she had been willing to dissent against the warmongering response from Bush and Cheney in 2001 through 2003, but she apparently felt it was too politically risky to do so at the time.  Barack Obama, who was not yet in the US Senate during those key votes, thus found his key to victory, albeit years after US politicians on a bipartisan basis rushed us into disasters on the ground that played out over decades.

Even in the current situation, I noted in my column on Tuesday that an interviewer from MSNBC -- which is clearly at the left end of mainstream political media in the US -- posed a question to a Democratic politician this way: "No one is saying to not do what Israel is doing, but why not simply now, as a member of Congress and others, call for a de-escalation and call for a ceasefire until we can insure the safety of everyone on the ground who is not a combatant?"  My main point in that column was to say that the Democrat's response was utterly lacking in content, but we also need to return to that lead-in: "No one is saying to not do what Israel is doing."  To repeat what I wrote there: Why not?  Why is no one asking whether the Israeli government's planned ground invasion is in fact a good idea, especially when those who are in favor of that strategy have not explained how it is supposed to make matters less bad?  The most plausible explanation for the US-based interviewer's instinct to cede so much substantive ground, I think, is that this was the current US version of "Yes, I support the troops."

By contrast, the reports that I have read and seen from Israeli journalists, diplomats, opinion columnists, politicians, and everyone else has included unbridled criticism of the Netanyahu government.  I noted in my column two days ago that Jennifer Rubin, the formerly neoconservative Washington Post columnist, had offered up an unflinching critique of Netanyahu and his cabinet -- notably relying on Israeli sources, such as the columnist Nadav Eyal, who wrote of his country's leadership: “Where is the feeling that you are ashamed, truly ashamed, burying yourself in shame and humiliation for such a terrible failure? ...  Our problem, simply put, is the political leadership."  Another interview last week saw an Israeli analyst describing his government's response as a "war crime."

Similarly, in The New York Times yesterday, Netanyahu Led Us to Catastrophe. He Must Go."  Here is a taste of the intensity of Gorenberg's prose

For an Israeli, the real heart of the question is: Who allowed this to happen? Despite the agony, because of it, we must demand a national accounting for what made the military disaster possible: the hubris and complacency and, most of all, the delusions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

One further example will complete the picture.  In an interview on Lawrence O'Donnell's show last night, Alon Pinkas -- a columnist for Haaretz who is also a former foreign policy advisor for the Israeli government -- said this: "This necessitates not only seriousness on the part of the Palestinians but, to be honest, this will require a completely different Israeli government.  A government led by Mr. Netanyahu, -- the right-wing lunatics, fanatics, and messianic people that he built his coalition with -- that government is never going to contemplate seriously a two-state solution, or enter negotiations."

Two points are especially pertinent here.  First, what should we make of the possibility that the people I have quoted here are simply Netanyahu haters who are saying what they have been saying all along?  That is, given that I have no sense of the rosters on the various sides of Israeli public discussions, it could be that I am doing the equivalent (at the opposite end of the spectrum) of quoting the most extreme Republicans as they rant about the Biden Crime Family or whatever.  I doubt that that is what is happening here, but even if that were the case, it is still profoundly heartening to see a country -- especially a country reeling from the terrorist murders that happened less then two weeks ago -- where leaders' political opponents are neither being censored nor censoring themselves.  As an American liberal, I find that openness to political disagreement in even the scariest of times to be almost unimaginable -- unimaginably good, to be clear.

The second point is that the comments from the Netanyahu critics noted above are harsh but not personal.  That is, the argument is not that "a bad thing happened, and we're reflexively blaming whoever happens to have been in charge."  The conversation is substantive, with various commentators bringing the government to task for, for example, "propp[ing] up Hamas."  That claim has, of course, in turn been scrutinized, but the less harsh assessment was hardly exculpatory: "[H]e didn't prop them up but didn't shut them down either."

Notably, Pinkas's comments at that point in the O'Donnell interview were specifically discussing the two-state solution -- which President Biden, to his enormous credit, made a point of bringing back into the conversation when he was in Israel earlier this week.  Although Pinkas conceded that emotions in Israel are too heightened at this moment to contemplate immediate discussions of future negotiated solutions, he predicted that a time will come relatively soon in which post-Netanyahu politicians in Israel will take a realistic look and conclude that the alternatives are all much worse.

Or maybe not.  As I noted in my column on Tuesday, I approach this entire situation with the knowledge that I lack a great deal of knowledge -- about Israel, Gaza, military strategy, international relations, counterterrorism, and on and on.  Maybe my current sense that a two-state solution is the less-bad option is wrong, and I will be convinced that an alternative is superior.  It is even possible (though highly unlikely) that evidence and logic will emerge that could convince a reasonable person that Netanyahu is not the disaster that he has seemed to be for as long as I have been aware of him.  (And maybe it will be proved that George Soros truly did steal the 2020 election from Donald Trump.)

Anyone open to new information and persuasion should jealously preserve the possibility of changing their views.  

What I am describing here is not a claim that there is a silver lining from the attacks, because I am talking about something that already existed before that awful day.  Instead, I am admiring the resilience and general health of a democratic society that has been under Trump-like pressure in recent years from anti-democratic forces inside the country.  Even at one of its lowest, most harrowing moments, that country countenances a robust public debate, attempts at accountability, and a rejection of intolerant dogmatism.