Squandering the country's credibility

Israeli governments sacrifice long-term interests for short-term financial or military convenience.

September 27, 2006 20:28
ethiopian child 298.88

ethiopian child 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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One of the most disturbing things about Israel's political culture is the ease with which governments squander credibility. This is a resource far more precious than money, because once gone, it can never be replaced. Yet time after time, governments have sacrificed long-term credibility on the altar of short-term interests. Consider two recent examples. One was the government's decision earlier this month to trim the budget by slashing the number of Falash Mura allowed to immigrate from Ethiopia from 300 to 150 a month - thereby reversing last year's pledge to double the quota, from 300 to 600. This decision will obviously cause humanitarian distress, both for the Falash Mura waiting in overcrowded camps in Ethiopia and for the relatives awaiting them in Israel. It also contradicts the Kadima government's alleged concern for demography - the declared reason for its proposed unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank: Some 20,000 immigrants of Jewish descent, who are eager to rejoin the Jewish people and willing to convert, would clearly be a demographic asset. But what makes the decision particularly outrageous is that when the cabinet originally voted to double the quota, it asked American Jews to raise $100 million to finance the Ethiopians' absorption. Then prime minister (and Kadima founder) Ariel Sharon even appealed personally to US Jewish leaders when he visited New York last year. And American Jewry responded: The United Jewish Communities have thus far raised $70 million for this purpose. "We suspended the rest of our activity and focused on this campaign," a senior UJC official told the press. Now, American Jewish donors and fundraisers are furious. The UJC even took the unusual step of publicly accusing the government of reneging on its promises. And the negative consequences are obvious. "We're dealing with a deep problem of trust here," the UJC official said. "Next time we come to ask [donors] for money, they might think twice." Left unsaid, but equally obvious, was the corollary: Next time an Israeli government requests assistance from American Jewish organizations, these groups might think twice about soliciting their donors. Over the years, Israel has asked for - and received - American Jewry's financial help on many vital projects. And it will undoubtedly want such help again in the future. But for the sake of an extremely short-term interest - cutting the budget without upsetting political allies - the government has squandered its credibility with American Jewish donors, thereby making it harder for Israel to tap this resource in the future. THE SECOND example is the government's handling of the settlers evacuated from Gaza last summer. On Monday, Haaretz published a summary of where resettlement efforts stand 13 months after the pullout, and nine months after Ehud Olmert became prime minister - not for those settlers who resisted the evacuation, but for those who acted "responsibly" and cooperated with the government. The bottom line: Construction on permanent housing has yet to begin in even one of the 18 locations earmarked for resettling evacuees. In Nitzanim, which is slated to house hundreds of families who signed agreements with the government before the pullout, no work at all has been done. In Ashkelon, where 150 families agreed to move prior to the disengagement, the government has not even finished buying the land for their promised houses. In Mavki'im, where 24 families agreed to relocate before the withdrawal, work has not even begun on the infrastructure, let alone the houses. And these are not the worst cases: Several planned communities do not even have approved master plans for construction - a process that can take years. This conduct is clearly immoral: Having evicted these families from their homes to serve its own policies, the government has an ethical obligation to at least keep its promises on resettlement. But quite aside from morality, the sheer stupidity of such behavior is mind-boggling. After all, this government campaigned on a platform of kicking an additional 80,000 Jews - ten times Gaza's number - out of their homes, and it therefore has a clear interest in encouraging cooperation rather than resistance. Instead, by breaking its resettlement promises to the Gaza evacuees, the government has virtually guaranteed that any future evacuation will meet with far fiercer resistance than the Gaza pullout did. Because if you are going to be a homeless refugee regardless of whether you cooperate or resist, why would anyone choose to cooperate? It would be comforting to think that such behavior is unique to the Olmert government. Unfortunately, previous governments have been no better. Ehud Barak's government, for instance, opted to betray our ally, the South Lebanon Army, by fleeing Lebanon overnight in May 2000 rather than risk Israeli soldiers' lives to secure an orderly retreat. It did not even give SLA members and their families 24 hours' notice in which to pack their belongings; they had to flee with whatever they had on hand, which left most of them penniless refugees. The government even forced them to abandon their cars at the border and enter Israel only with what they could carry. The lack of advance notice also split up families, as some fighters' relatives were unable to reach the border before it closed. And then, to add insult to injury, successive governments (Barak's and Sharon's) refused to grant the SLA refugees citizenship - an omission rectified by the Knesset only four years later. This callous betrayal was clearly immoral. But it also severely undermined Israel's credibility as an ally, and hence its ability to recruit other allies in the future. And there are far too many other examples - such as the decades of budgetary discrimination against the Druse, the one Israeli Arab community loyal to the state; or the abandonment of Palestinian informants during successive pullouts from the territories. In all the above cases, Israeli governments sacrificed a long-term interest - credibility with friends, allies and even its own citizens - for short-term financial or military convenience. The days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are a time to repent past errors and vow to do better. This destructive habit of squandering the country's credibility would be an excellent place to start.

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