Settlements, Bailouts, and the Roman Republic
So now Ehud Olmert thinks that Israel needs to uproot the settlements and withdraw from Jerusalem and the West Bank. That’s kind of interesting in the context of this article on radical settlers, which makes pretty clear that any effort to uproot the West Bank settlers will result in a campaign of terror and assassination against Israel’s leaders.
When I was in Israel with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies last June, we were given a lecture on Palestinian terrorist organizations that ended with the surprising (given the FDD sponsorship) argument that the settlements would destroy Israel if they weren’t abandoned in the next ten years or so. The argument (which I substantially agree with) went like this: If not abandoned, the settlements will require either the construction of a full apartheid state, or the extermination/expulsion of the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank. Either way, Israeli democracy dies, and Israel cannot survive without democratic institutions. Interestingly enough, a friend and I were speaking with one of the FDD organizers after the lecture, and he made the argument that the settlers could not be moved; there were too many of them, and they held too much political power. When we asked what his solution was, he said “Eventually, one side will develop the political will necessary to resolve the situation”.
I found that claim pretty scary, but then I’m not sure that the political argument is wrong. There is, believe it or not, space for the settlers in Israel, and the border could be drawn or redrawn such that some settlements would be enclosed in Israel, potentially with territorial or other compensation for the Palestinians. But that’s not the problem. The problem, rather, is that the political institutions of Israeli life are insufficient to accomplish the task of removing the settlements. To vastly oversimplify, the Israeli body politic is divided into three groups; those who recognize the threat that the settlements pose and want to uproot them, those who recognize the threat but for instrumental reasons don’t want to uproot them, and those who don’t because they just want to watch the world burn.
The outcome, I fear, is that a majority of the Israeli population will realize the problem that the settlements represent, but that Israeli institutions (in particularly the structure of its political parties) will prevent their uprooting; fear of terrorism on the part of settlers and greed for the votes of settlers will prevent the kind of broad compromise necessary to withdrawing from the West Bank. And so, I’m afraid, Israeli democracy is in serious danger, in spite of the fact that Israel has, in many ways, a more vigorous culture of democratic participation than the United States. Other than those who are happy to watch the world burn, no one wants this outcome; nevertheless, avoiding it is going to be extremely difficult.
Posts by Ezra and Hilzoy make this point in reference to the bailout bill. There seems to be fairly broad consensus that something ought to be done, strong differences of opinion on this particular bailout bill notwithstanding. These differences are strong, however, and are by and large seriously held; people from legitimately different perspectives on the economy are going to have different bailout priorities, even within each major party. And there is also a group that is content to watch the world burn; this group constitutes the greater portion (although, I think, not the entirety) of the Republican Party. Within this context it should be possible to put together some kind of bill that will ward off the worst economic consequences of the financial collapse, but it is wrong to assume that a bill will actually happen. The Democrats could push the bill through with a party line vote, but such a bill might well be vetoed by the President, or filibustered by the Senate. Any concession either way on the current bill could easily alienate as many votes on the one side as it brings on the other. It is not at all difficult for me to believe that no bailout bill will pass; the consequences of that may or may not be grave, but in any case the risk is worrisome. Although there’s plenty of perfidy to go around on the bailout, this outcome is not dependent on that perfidy; institutions can fail without any help from the evil or stupid.
Both the settlements problem and the bailout problem remind me of something I wrote a while ago in reference to the Roman Republic. Simply because something must happen does not mean that it will happen. The Roman Republic faced a series of internal crises that were evident to all and that desperately required political solution; moreover, the contours of such solution were evident to most of the relevant political players, and in the abstract were achievable. The Republic had been designed to manage the political affairs of a small city-state. The achievement of Empire made those institutions quaint; provincial governors would make war on their own authority, and return to Rome at the head of Legions bound by personal loyalty and with more money than the whole of the Roman state. The institutions of the Roman Republic, solid enough for five hundred years, were insufficient to actually achieving the necessary solutions. In the face of crises that demanded solution, the Roman Republic crumbled, because the institutional structure created vested interests and veto points that prevented the achievement of any solution. The Republic could not save itself because its very structure prevented it from doing the things that were necessary to reform. Almost no one wanted this outcome, but no one could stop it from happening. It’s not that people are stupid (although many are) or dishonest (although many are); its that the institutions make certain outcomes difficult to achieve.
This doesn’t mean that everything is going to fall apart. The United States, I think, faces a crisis far less substantial than that of Israel or of the Roman Republic. I’m not so sure about Israel’s crisis; I do think that the settlements problem could, in the end, be as devastating to the Israeli state as the problems that the Roman Republic faced in the first century BCE. This is to say that the Israeli state may cease to exist in its current form in the same sense that the Roman Republic ceased to exist in the latter half of the first century. This also isn’t a call for bipartisan hand-holding; the Republican Party has essentially ceased to be an organization interested in policymaking of any sort, and can’t be regarded as a legitimate partner for the making of responsible legislation. Still, politics can fail even when almost everyone knows that they want to succeed. In the context of both the settlements and the bailout, that can be kind of scary.