An opportunity for real change

We must take advantage of the wave of protests to adopt a civilian agenda, decide on the monetary and planning implications, shift our national priorities.

By SILVAN SHALOM
August 6, 2011 22:36
4 minute read.
North Tel Aviv tent protest

North Tel Aviv tent protest 311. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

Ever since the early days of the state, and even before that, security has been at the heart of the Israeli discourse. Security, and the implications surrounding it, are what have dominated election campaigns and elected prime ministers, brought people onto the streets and featured heavily in living-room conversations.

The social protests flooding the country in the past few weeks reflect a significant change in this traditional discourse, and strengthen what has been my own approach for many years. I’ve always thought that security cannot be measured only by a country’s military might. Our security as a nation and as a society doesn’t depend solely on our technological advantages or the number of our troops. Our security is first and foremost tethered to our ability to stand together and face challenges and, no less importantly, by our level of commitment to basic values such as solidarity, equal opportunity and justice.

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The past few weeks provide an opportunity for us as a society to put social and economic matters at the heart of the public agenda. The tens of thousands of demonstrators, from north to south, have forced us all to engage in a deep and meaningful conversation about our social and economic future.

We must take advantage of this opportunity to change the way we think. Now is the hour to adopt a civilian agenda, decide on the monetary and planning implications and, once and for all, shift our national priorities.

I have been following the young demonstrators closely. Their cries reflect, in my opinion, the genuine plight of those who need to make the most critical decisions of their lives regarding their personal, professional and economic future. I am a huge believer in our youth; they are our future – the social foundation of the state. In my ministry, I’ve dedicated a section to young people, and we operate dozens of youth centers. I hold roundtable discussions with them on a regular basis, and initiated the annual Youth Convention, which has been held for three years and will be held for the fourth time in upcoming months. The aim of the conferences is to raise the burning concerns of our youth to the top of the national agenda by presenting their challenges and proposing solutions.

Israel is the youngest of the developed countries.

The median age is 28 – far younger than any other Western country. This figure obligates us to provide adequate solutions to the issues raised by the youth. They want a society with more solidarity, they want more mutual assurances, they want to see a comprehensive shift that will take us from our fixation on security to civilian thinking.

Over the past year and a half, the defense budget has been increased four times, despite my opposition. Yes, there are real threats to the state that we can’t ignore, but we must learn to balance these needs.

Alongside the support for the authentic protest – that which arises from the depths of the protesters’ hearts and is frankly moving in its strength – there are unfortunately those who wish to catch a free ride on the demonstrators’ coattails. These people’s goal is to topple the government, and they will use any means to reach that end.

I wish to remind these people that a democratic government can only be replaced by the ballot box; until then, they are welcome to be partners in shifting priorities, setting a new social agenda and laying the groundwork for change that will ensure a better and healthier future for us and our children.

Our job as the government is to do everything possible to increase competition and lower prices.

If we act wisely, Israel’s consumers will soon feel the change in their pockets.

The path to real change must also address taxation policy. It is time to freeze the income tax and corporate tax reductions that were part of the tax reform I led in 2002, and reduce indirect taxes – purchase tax, customs, VAT and fuel taxation.

Indirect taxes lead to increases in social gaps.

The just protests of the doctors also deserve redress. I got to know the issues closely when I dealt with the establishment of the medical school in Safed this year. Their protest is far more than just another bid to increase pay. It is an incredibly significant battle for the future of public medicine in this country. The doctors’ calls for immediate and comprehensive health reform require a more prominent place in our national discourse and, accordingly, a greater claim on our resources.

We have been granted a unique opportunity to deal with vital matters, to ask ourselves whether we want to truly change our national priorities, or continue acting as captives to the same old security-and-diplomacy-driven agenda that pushes aside all social matters. The current relative security calm enables us to conclude debates on matters of vital importance and ensure a society that is more healthy, just and equal.

The writer is vice prime minister, minister for regional cooperation and for the development of Negev and the Galilee.


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