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

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