Mar 1st 2011

Israel, Where are You?

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

While the Arab world joins together in a call for democracy, Israel's democracy is unraveling. As the Arab world demands accountability from its leaders, Israel's leaders are facing investigations and indictments. As the Arab world demands greater social mobility and economic opportunity, Israel's gap between the rich and poor continues to widen. The Arab world has discovered the power of peaceful demonstration, while Israel continues to rely on military might, rather than peacemaking, to safeguard its national interests. The Arab world appears determined to proactively lead their countries to a more positive future, but Israel appears floundering, leaderless, with no vision and most troubling of all, apathetic. Protesters have flooded Tahrir Square in Cairo, and recently Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain and other major Arab cities across the region; but Rabin Square in Tel Aviv remains shamefully quiet. It is not suggested here that the Arab world is on the brink of socio-economic and political modernization that will leave Israel languishing behind. But where are the Israelis demanding change that leads to peace and prosperity for all Israelis?

Where are the leaders in power? - They are preoccupied with staying in power, diverting indictment, and shuffling to find a voice. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's shameful systematic dismantling of the Labor Party he once led is indicative of the state of Israeli leadership and politics today. He set aside the values and positions for which he was elected to serve, in order to maintain a position of power and bolster an ego that appears to inflate with each passing day. Perhaps he has learned from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose second term has been an exercise in futility. Netanyahu has no policy beyond staying in power. Any policy he might pursue is beholden to the veto of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an individual reviled by much of the world for his racist views, and who this month will face a potential indictment on charges of corruption, bribery, breach of trust, and others. Netanyahu and Lieberman cannot even agree on who should be the ambassador in the United Kingdom, let alone what shape a coherent foreign policy should take.

The opposition in Israel is, sadly, leaderless and disparaged. Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni cannot instill party discipline nor generate sufficient confidence in her leadership from the public. Kadima Members in the Knesset regularly oppose one another on issues presented before the Knesset, including the investigation of left-wing NGOs which makes a mockery of democracy and free speech. The dearth of any credible and clear ideas from Kadima is disheartening. Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz's comments last week that the United States should withhold military aid to Egypt-at a time when this aid serves as a critical incentive to maintain cooperation between the Egyptian military, the United States, and Israel-was particularly perplexing. Two weeks ago, Moshe Schori, the director-general of the Kadima party, was arrested on corruption charges. Indeed, Kadima looks little different than its corrupted counterparts in the Netanyahu government; and Israel is left with little prospect of rising visionary leaders.

Where are the soldiers? - Those who have spoken out against Israel's occupation are now defending themselves against accusations of treason. Soldiers involved in such groups as "Breaking the Silence," an organization that compiles testimony of Israeli soldiers serving in the occupation, have been labeled traitors for criticizing and condemning actions by the IDF. At the same time, Israeli officers and combat units are becoming increasingly ideological and religious, when in fact Israel's national security depends on non-ideological soldiers who are committed only to the national security of the state. In 1990, 2.5 percent of infantry officers were religious. By 2007, that number had jumped to 31.4 percent. Meanwhile, religious preparatory programs are producing far more infantry units than others. A full 80 percent of religious graduates join combat units, compared to 40 percent of all soldiers. Israeli soldiers have always fulfilled their duties with dignity and discipline, and they must never be dragged into the characteristically Israeli political morass.

Where are the mothers and fathers? - They are watching as their children are indoctrinated with zealotry and even bigotry. Just over a year ago, a poll conducted by Maagar Mochot, an Israeli research institution, indicated that nearly 50 percent of Israeli high-school students did not believe that Arabs should have the same rights as Jews in the State of Israel. Eighty percent of religious high school students supported this view. Meanwhile, 48 percent of all high-school students in Israel said that after enlisting in the IDF they would not obey orders to evacuate settlements in the West Bank. As an unidentified Education Ministry official told reporters upon the poll's publication: "This poll shows findings which place a huge warning signal in light of the strengthening trends of extremist views among the youth." Now, rather than address the problem, Israel's Education Ministry is exacerbating it. Education Minister Gideon Saar recently announced plans to bring Israeli school children to Abraham's tomb in Hebron, in what amounts to an unnecessary and untimely provocation aiming to bolster nationalistic-and right-wing-perspectives among the youth. With such developments, the future does not appear bright for peace and coexistence even for the next generation.

So where are the peace activists? - They are few in number, and are scrambling to find a voice. Demonstrations against the investigations into left-wing NGOs that have reached Rabin Square have looked more like potlucks than protests. With the Labor party decimated, Meretz marginalized and Kadima in perpetual disarray, there is no home for the so-called "peace camp" in Israel today. Instead, Israel continues to rely on its military to provide security in the short-term, rather than mobilize in support of peace initiatives that could safeguard Israel's security for generations. A majority of Israelis say they want peace, but when presented with an historic opportunity to make peace with Israel's neighbors through the Arab Peace Initiative, 56 percent of the public opposed it. In a recent poll for Israel's Channel One, parties deemed to be on the left garnered 54 seats, compared to 66 for those on the right. Of the various reasons offered to individuals to indicate why they chose their party affiliation, the peace process was not even listed as an option. Today, for Israelis, it doesn't even appear on the radar.

Where are the spiritual leaders? - They are sowing seeds of division rather than co-existence. Last week, 70 rabbis joined together in support of Rabbi Dov Lior, who is facing arrest for refusing to answer questions regarding his endorsement of a book that advocates the killing of innocent non-Jews during wartime. In December, much attention was paid to the 50 rabbis who joined together in a letter opposing Israeli Jews renting homes to Arabs. Another letter, signed by nearly 30 wives of rabbis, opposed Jews dating Arabs or even working in the same vicinity as non-Jews. Also on the agenda of spiritual leaders in the country has been to strip the IDF from performing conversions for soldiers, deeming the process not sufficiently compliant with religious law. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Shas party, which is a part of the coalition government, has captured headlines numerous times in the past year for his extremist rants. He has called for the death of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said that gentiles only exist to serve Jews, and stated that women should be forbidden from teaching children above age nine. Meanwhile, more progressive religious leaders appear rather quiet, focusing instead on their efforts to gain greater status in Israeli society, including the sanctioning of unorthodox religious ceremonies such as weddings. Rather than part of the solution, spiritual leaders are all too often becoming part of the problem of Israeli endemic complacency.

Where are the entrepreneurs? - They are content and apathetic. Life for successful businessmen is good in Israel-but for everyone else, it is not. Israel's economy grew an impressive 5.4 percent in 2010, including 7.8 percent in the fourth quarter. However, the latest National Insurance Institute report indicated that 23 percent of the Israeli population lives below the poverty line, and another 29 percent risk joining them. The average salary of senior executives at the Tel Aviv stock exchange's 25 largest companies amounts to 94 times that of the national average. Furthermore, the middle class is rapidly shrinking. In 1988, the middle class amounted to 33 percent of Israel; by 2009 it had plummeted to 26.6 percent. According to the gini coefficient of inequality, which reached 39.2 percent in 2010, Israel can now be considered one of the most disparate societies in the world. But still the disadvantaged also remain quiet and alarmingly complacent.

Finally, where are the students and the vibrant academic community? Over a thousand university students marched in Jerusalem in November to protest government stipends for yeshiva students. But where are they to oppose Israel's disastrous foreign policy? Why aren't they in the streets protesting against defunct government policy that could usher in disastrous violent conflict by insisting on maintaining the status quo? And where are Israel's academics? Israeli scholars are hailed for their ingenuity and imagination. Nine Israelis have won Nobel prizes, including Yitzhak Rabin's peace prize. However, Israel's renowned scholars are too rarely heard using their intellect and university pulpit in a consistent way to rally support for policies that lead Israel to a better future. Why aren't they raising their voice collectively and in unison, day in and day out, protesting the madness of a government that has lost its moral compass?

The emptiness of Rabin Square is frightening. Without change, the worrisome trends in Israeli society will become entrenched, and the region will be headed to another round of bloodshed that could be sparked at any moment. Israel is the nation whose national anthem conveys an eternal "hope" and whose founding father Theodore Herzl famously captured the ethos of Zionism by declaring "if you will it, it is no dream." Today, hope is in short supply in Israel, and few are demonstrating any will to create a better future.

The notion of Israel becoming a "light unto the nations" while at peace and security with its neighbors seems to be a distant dream today. If the country does not change course, and begin to make what appears now to be a dream into a reality, it could experience a nightmare of drastic proportions.

*A version of this article was originally published in Jerusalem Post on 2/25/11, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=209705

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "