Continuing Disunity in Israel


The recent dueling full-page ads in The New York Times, first by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder and, in response, by a group of prominent Israeli critics of the Netanyahu government, bring focus to the challenge of resolving the deepening political conflict in Israel.

Lauder’s ad was published in late July. In it, Lauder explained that while the Diaspora normally refrains from meddling in Israeli politics, Israel’s deeply divisive internal disputes — stemming from the judicial overhaul promoted by Israel’s right-wing government, its dependence on ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist parties for a majority and the resulting alienation of a large segment of Israel’s population — prompt him to recommend the formation of a unity government to lead the country.

According to Lauder, “there are only three men who can bring about this unity” ― Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. Lauder urged the three to meet “to discuss frankly the nation’s alarming predicament” and “overcome personal interests and political differences so they can form a strong and stable emergency government.”

The response came last week in another full-page ad in The New York Times. Its signers were not from the Netanyahu government or any of its coalition members or supporters. It was co-signed by 17 prominent Israelis, including former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff Dan Halutz and Moshe Ya’alon (who is also a former defense minister) and former Mossad head Tamir Pardo, as well as several business leaders.

They called Lauder’s unity plan “misguided” and argued that, because of the Netanyahu government’s insistence on pursuing judicial change and related activities, “there can be no unity with those who have declared total war on Israeli democracy.”

Rather, they asserted, “there can only be unity after two conditions are met: WITHDRAW the toxic [judicial overhaul] legislation in its entirety. REVERSE the law passed on July 26th which revokes judicial oversight based on the long-standing ‘extreme unreasonableness’ standard … After these prerequisites are achieved, we can talk.”

Lauder does not speak for Diaspora Jewry. And the 17 anti-Netanyahu proponents do not speak for all who oppose the plans of the ruling coalition. But the positions taken by Lauder and the responders are interesting.

Lauder, the cosmetic fortune heir and longtime philanthropist and activist, is a former Netanyahu ally. He is credited with helping Netanyahu achieve his first election as prime minister in his come-from-behind victory over Shimon Peres in 1996. But that relationship has weakened as Netanyahu has abandoned Palestinian peace efforts and cultivated far-right alliances. We understand where Lauder is coming from – even if he is just speaking for himself.

We also understand why Lauder’s suggestion of a three-member unity team made up of two people (Lapid and Gantz) who have pledged to never join with the third (Netanyahu) probably won’t work. What we don’t understand is the opposition group’s insistence on the satisfaction of preconditions before even being willing to talk. That doesn’t make sense.

In the deeply divided debate within Israel, each side is convinced its position is correct, moral and consistent with democratic principles. That disagreement is tearing the country apart. Some compromise is needed.

Neither side will lose anything by exploring creative solutions to resolve the impasse and to do so without preconditions. President Isaac Herzog appears anxious to lead that effort.


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