For Netanyahu, the toughest peace to make is at home

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When I met Benjamin Netanyahu in San Francisco about 20 years ago, he seemed to be mainly concerned with the decay and lack of unifying values among Israeli youth. He was setting up a foundation to promote those values, in the name of his dead brother, hero of Entebbe.

The last Israeli election would seem to give support to that concern. It is not so much that the Israelis' vote for prime minister split, but that Israelis fragmented like a smashed mirror in their parliamentary vote. Whatever one may think of the election for prime minister, the results of the Knesset election will undoubtedly have more of an effect on Israeli's future. Both major Israeli parties have suffered damage.

A major party is a place where a number of different single-interest factions come together to bargain, fight, compromise internally and then fuse around a common agenda of unifying values. By that process, in the past 75 years, the big American parties have often succeeded in accommodating factions, blunting extremism and thwarting fragmentation — the Democratic Party from the left, the Republican Party from the right. These parties have often been accused by their fringes of moving towards the center, but that is exactly where a heterogeneous country usually belongs.

Israel has always flirted with many splinter parties, but the major parties have managed to keep them somewhat in order. Sure, the major parties are themselves coalitions to begin with, and coalitions often have to be formed after elections anyway — but post-election coalitions without a strong center usually guarantee a recurrent dogfight.

However, the splintering in Israel's election reflected not just a political problem but a serious cultural fragmentation. The peace process was not the only issue for many in that election. The various religious and ethnic parties also had other fish to fry.

The Israelis are more united on their foreign affairs than the election might have indicated. The majority of Israelis are willing to trade some land for peace, although many of them obviously want a safer, more favorable, more ensured trade, conducted at a more deliberate pace. In the long run, other religious and ethnic differences may divide the Israelis more seriously than principled differences on the peace process. Out of this understanding, the independent Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv commented:

"The new composition of the Knesset shows that the upheaval is not only political, but also social…not only did Netanyahu defeat Peres but the mostly Middle Eastern–national-religious world view defeated the mostly Ashkenazi–liberal world view." As one Knesset member, Professor Shlomo Ben-Ami, put it: "Jerusalem has defeated Tel Aviv."

There is nothing wrong with cultural differences or group self-interests. In the United States as well as Israel, we want to see different ethnic and religious communities flourish; they are important for the health of the society and much of the citizenry. The problem arises when there is a breakdown in the common overarching values that can unify such diversity. Then, a society is in trouble.

There are such signs of growing disunity among American Jews as well. Using Ben-Ami's metaphor, we have our own "Jerusalem/Tel Aviv" clash among American Jews, although tilted more than Israel's towards "Tel Aviv." Our main job, as always, is to find our own unifying values as American Jews. It has now been made more difficult because our identity is so closely tied to Israel, and Israel is about to wrestle with some sharp differences about what it means to "be Jewish."

That is the kind of thing Netanyahu was worrying about 20 years ago. It is probably what he is worrying about today when he says he wants to bring peace within Israel. It is much more than the "peace process" with which he has to deal.