Civil Fights: The preoccupation continues

Urgent domestic crises fester because successive governments have fixated on the 'peace process.'

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [archive])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [archive])
Commentators these days are increasingly bewailing the state of the country. In Friday's Post, David Kimche justly assailed a host of ills, from poverty to soaring crime to a "floundering" education system to mistreatment of foreign workers. Yoel Marcus did the same in Friday's Haaretz, declaring that Israel has become "a country full of corruption, con men and thieves; a country of violent teenagers walking around on the third week of the teachers' strike with knives in their pockets … a country of wild drivers, fatal accidents and a police force that is never there when you need it … a country where sipping coffee at a nightclub ends in a brawl..." And while some commentators seem bewildered by the decline, leftists often have a stock culprit: "the occupation." In Kimche's words, "it has corrupted our morals, undermined our values, divided our society, encouraged violence, and drained away billions of dollars." Unfortunately, this explanation presents a problem: "The occupation" is 40 years old, whereas the ills that Kimche and Marcus cite are relatively new. In the late 1980s, for instance, Israel still had an exceptionally low crime rate, relatively modest income gaps and functioning schools, even though a whole generation had by then grown up with "the occupation." Teens who had never known Israel without "the occupation" still felt no need to carry "knives in their pockets"; young soldiers who served three years in the territories nevertheless became upstanding citizens. Indeed, the deterioration has occurred mainly over the last 15 years, when Israel has been desperately trying to end the occupation. Nor is this surprising - because human beings do not have unlimited energies; they can focus on only one or two big issues at a time. And since 1993, the energies of both successive governments and the public have been devoted almost entirely to two issues: trying to solve a conflict that (as I argued two weeks ago) is currently unsolvable, and coping with the disastrous consequences of these efforts. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, was elected largely due to domestic problems (a recession) and initially focused on them. But after the Oslo Accord was signed in 1993, domestic issues went by the wayside: His government was fully occupied in negotiating new Israeli-Palestinian agreements (one each in 1994 and 1995), trying to muster Knesset majorities for them, countering massive public opposition and combating the soaring post-Oslo terrorism. The public was similarly preoccupied with these issues, which dominated the 1996 election. Binyamin Netanyahu's term was perforce devoted to dealing with Oslo's fallout: terrorism, which killed more Israelis in the two and a half years after Oslo than during the entire preceding decade, and an economic crisis (a $6 billion current account deficit) that the Rabin-Peres government had ignored in its obsession with the "peace process." Moreover, pressure from both the US administration and the Israeli media forced him to invest considerable energy in negotiating further Israeli-Palestinian pacts (1997 and 1999) and suppressing consequent opposition from his own coalition partners. He had no time or energy to spare for major domestic initiatives. NETANYAHU'S success in reducing terrorism enabled Ehud Barak to win in 1999 by pledging to address domestic problems. Once in office, however, he ignored these issues, focusing instead on the "peace process": withdrawing from Lebanon, negotiating with Syria and the Palestinians. Instead of peace, these efforts produced a terrorist war (and, eventually, the Second Lebanon War as well). But they devoured both the government's and the public's attention and dominated the 2001 election. Ariel Sharon of necessity spent his first years in office dealing with the terror war and the consequent recession. By late 2003, enough progress had been made to enable other initiatives - but instead of domestic reforms, he launched the disengagement. For the next two years, both the government and the country were convulsed over this issue. His government's one significant domestic initiative, the Dovrat educational reform, languished for lack of attention. AND NOW, we have Ehud Olmert, who has also neglected domestic issues to focus on the conflict: first his unilateral withdrawal plan, now the Annapolis conference. The "peace process" has also had other negative domestic consequences. One is money: Because terrorism soared, so did the defense budget, leaving less for other priorities. Indeed, defense is the largest 2008 budget item, for the first time outstripping even debt servicing. And the disengagement diverted billions of shekels from other needs into relocating army bases and compensating evacuated settlers. Another negative consequence is social cohesion. While Israel has always had left-right disputes, those of the past 15 years have been especially bitter, due mainly to the democratic deficit that has characterized the "peace process": Rabin passed Oslo-II by buying the votes of two Knesset members from a right-wing party; Barak went to Washington and Taba after having lost his Knesset majority; Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza after both being elected on an explicit pledge not to do so and losing a referendum that he himself called. The consequent decline in social solidarity has inevitably increased crime and violence. Moreover, because governments now revolve entirely around the "peace process," coalition partners often disagree vehemently on domestic issues, meaning that few governments could enact domestic reforms even if they so desired. Nor can parties that disagree on the conflict unite around common domestic interests (say, Labor and Likud on electoral reform), because they dare not alienate smaller coalition partners. Nevertheless, the biggest problem remains the human incapacity to focus on more than one or two big issues at a time. As long as successive governments, and therefore the public, remain obsessed with (a) trying to solve the conflict and (b) picking up the pieces afterward, domestic issues will continue to be neglected, and the problems will only worsen. Only by reversing our order of priorities and giving domestic problems top billing can these problems be solved - which means accepting that for now, the conflict will only be contained, not ended. But if leftists like Kimche and Marcus persist in seeing "solving the conflict" as the top priority, the deterioration of the past 15 years will inevitably continue.