Above the Fray: Israel, where are you?

The Arab world is determined to lead their countries to a more positive future, but Israel appears leaderless, with no vision and apathetic.

Egyptian protesters with flags at pyramids 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian protesters with flags at pyramids 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
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 people in the Arab world appear 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.
Where are the Israelis who should be demanding change that leads to peace and prosperity for all? Where are the leaders? 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 leadership and politics today. He set aside the values and positions for which he was elected 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 Binyamin Netanyahu, whose second term has been an exercise in futility. He 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, may face a potential indictment.
THE OPPOSITION is, sadly, also leaderless and disparaged. Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni cannot instill party discipline nor generate sufficient confidence in her leadership from the public. The dearth of any credible and clear ideas from Kadima is disheartening. MK Shaul Mofaz’s comments last week that the US 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 US and Israel – was particularly perplexing. Last week, Kadima director- general Moshe Shehori was arrested on suspicion of corruption. Indeed, Kadima looks very little different from its counterparts in the government; and the country is left with little prospect of rising visionary leaders.
Where are the soldiers? Those who have spoken out against the occupation are now defending themselves against accusations of treason. Soldiers involved in such groups as Breaking the Silence have been labeled traitors for criticizing and condemning certain actions by the IDF. At the same time, officers and combat units are becoming increasingly ideological and religious when in fact national security depends on nonideological soldiers.
In 1990, 2.5 percent of infantry officers were religious. By 2007, that number had jumped to 31.4%. Meanwhile, religious preparatory programs are producing far more recruits for infantry units than others. A full 80% of religious graduates join combat units, compared to 40% of all soldiers. IDF soldiers have always fulfilled their duties with dignity and discipline, and they must never be dragged into the 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 Ma’agar Mohot indicated that nearly 50% of high-school students did not believe that Arabs should have the same rights as Jews. Eighty percent of religious high school students supported this view.
Meanwhile, 48% of all high-school students said that after being drafted, they would not obey orders to evacuate settlements. 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.”
Rather than address the problem, the Education Ministry is exacerbating it. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar recently announced plans to bring school children to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, in what amounts to an unnecessary and untimely provocation aiming to bolster nationalistic – and rightwing – perspectives among youth.
Where are the peace activists? They are few in number, and are scrambling to find a voice.
Demonstrations 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.
A majority of Israelis say they want peace, but when presented with an historic opportunity to make peace through the Arab Peace Initiative, 56% of the public oppose it. The peace process doesn’t even appear on the radar.
WHERE ARE the spiritual leaders? They are sowing seeds of division rather than coexistence.
Last week, 70 rabbis joined together to support 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 signed a letter opposing Jews renting homes to non-Jews. Another letter, signed by nearly 30 rabbis’ wives, opposed Jews dating Arabs or even working in the same vicinity as non-Jews.
Meanwhile, more progressive religious leaders appear rather quiet, focusing on their efforts to gain greater status, including the sanctioning of non-Orthodox religious ceremonies such as weddings. Rather than part of the solution, spiritual leaders are all too often becoming part of the problem of endemic complacency.
Where are the entrepreneurs? They are content and aloof. Life for successful businessmen is good. The economy grew by an impressive 5.4% last year, including 7.8% in the fourth quarter. However, the latest National Insurance Institute report indicated that 23% of the population lives below the poverty line, and another 29% risks 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% of Israelis; by 2009 it had dropped to 26.6%.
According to the Gini coefficient of inequality, which reached 39.2% in 2010, the country can now be considered one of the most disparate societies. But the disadvantaged also remain quiet and alarmingly complacent.
FINALLY, WHERE are the students and the vibrant academic community? More than a thousand university students marched in Jerusalem in November to protest government stipends for yeshiva students. But where are they to oppose a disastrous foreign policy? Why aren’t they in the streets protesting against government policy that could usher in violent conflict by insisting on maintaining the status quo? And where are the academics? Israeli scholars are hailed for their ingenuity and imagination.
Nine Israelis have won Nobel Prizes.
However, renowned scholars are too rarely heard using their intellect and university pulpit in a consistent way to rally support for policies that lead to a better future. Why aren’t they raising their voice collectively, protesting the madness of a government that has lost its moral compass? The emptiness of Kikar Rabin is frightening.
Without change, the worrisome trends in society will become entrenched, and the region will be headed toward another round of bloodshed that could be sparked at any moment. Israel’s national anthem conveys an eternal “hope” and its founding father, Theodor Herzl, famously captured the ethos of Zionism by declaring “if you will it, it is no dream.” Today, hope is in short supply, and few are demonstrating any will to create a better future.
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.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.