JERUSALEM -- Every four years, I watch from a distance as America, land of my birth and my marrow, turns into a foreign country. Familiar people and places grow puzzling, even exotic, under the pulls and spells of this caucus and that dark horse, the backroom heat of the moment and the long-ball crush of history.
At this distance, it often seems that the world's most eccentric candidate-selection process will force the U.S. clear off the rails. Then, just in time, an unlikely rescuer emerges. None more unlikely, surely, than this year's savior.
Thank God for Ron Paul.
And not only for the sake of Democratic Party and the incumbent president, who stand to have the most to gain from one of the more staggeringly peculiar candidates in living memory.
In a wider sense, Dr. Paul just might be what the Republican Party needs, and, along with it, the United States. Not, God forbid, as president. Rather, as a sobering influence. A cautionary plunge of madness. An immensely valuable bad dream.
In fact, so outrageous an object lesson is the presidential candidacy of the gynecologist from Galveston, that there are those of us who could use a man like Ron Paul here in Israel right about now.
What the Paul phenomenon can teach Israelis about themselves -- in particular Benjamin Netanyahu's Republican-allied Likud -- is what Republicans themselves have discovered to their horror in recent weeks and months.
Here is a man who scares the bejesus out of the Republican establishment -- and not a moment too soon. At long last, the Party of Lincoln is waking in the back seat of the long, careening drunk drive that is Tea Party extremism.
Moderate Republicans, many of whom had quietly prayed that support for Paul would quickly dry up and blow away, have watched aghast as the Texas congressman's bandwagon has gathered momentum of late. They have gone from pointedly ignoring Paul to studying his views, which are radically at odds both with most Republicans and with the swing voters who may well decide the November presidential election.
Of course, it may turn out that the lessons of this may be lost on precisely those Israelis who have the most to gain from learning them. For example:
1. Ignore extremists at your peril.
Giving extremists room to maneuver and a national stage can backfire badly, tying your hands even as it tars you with a wide brush.
2. Tolerate extremism and you breed competition, which breeds escalation.
Paul has a number of rivals for the title of farthest Republican outlier, notably ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who once criticized the left as unfairly anti-Crusades, and who once linked homosexuality with pedophilia and even bestiality.
Finally, the element that could cost both the Republicans and Netanyahu dearly in a future election:
3. Beware the Blackmail of Extremism.
The zeal and the apparent purity of extremists comes with a built-in dose of extortion, as the Paul candidacy illustrates. If extremists bolt, as they are wont to do, they can efficiently undermine you in a third party run. But even keeping them close is no solution. The extremist will then taint you as no one else.
Netanyahu and the Likud, shored up by polls showing that they have no realistic opposition at present -- except the implied threats of pro-settler and Haredi allies -- will have every temptation to stay the course and keep the ship's wheel of state hard to the right.
But as Netanyahu himself showed in 1996 in overcoming a huge 20 point deficit in defeating Shimon Peres, over-confidence in polls can cause a politically lethal strain of selective blindness.
Now, for the first time in years, moderate candidates with electoral potential are coming to the fore in Israel, notably news anchor and writer Yair Lapid, and outgoing Teva Pharmaceuticals CEO and former IDF major-general Shlomo Yanai.
Likud strategists, meanwhile, can take a lesson from Ron Paul. Or they can take a lesson from 1964.
The Republican presidential candidate, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, was a riveting thinker and orator. The most renowned sentence he ever spoke, however, might have been his most misguided.
"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," he declared, accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1964, adding "and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"
There was undeniable power in these words. But there was something frightening in them as well, frightening enough to set in motion a landslide Republican defeat of historic proportions.
Netanyahu may view himself as unbeatable at present. Yet, a backlash is building in the crucial center of the Israeli electorate. The hard right and the violent fringe Orthodox are wearing out their welcomes. And Netanyahu knows better than anyone, that if anyone can dislodge the Israeli right from power, it is the fickle, short-fuse Israeli extreme right.
At some point, Netanyahu will need to act to keep the center close, rather than the extremes. And, as the leading Republican in Israel, the prime minister might also consider joining his American colleagues in their most fervent prayer this week:
"Please, God, don't let Ron Paul win."
Originally published on Haaretz.com
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