Inside Out: Existential priorities

With all due respect to the differences, the Israeli regime is not despotic and the external threats it faces are real and existential.

Interior of Bushehr nuclear plant 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Iran)
Interior of Bushehr nuclear plant 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Iran)
Israelis have had a number of pressing issues on their minds lately, all of which have been placed in the forefront by the media and the political leadership in the past number of weeks. First and foremost perhaps is the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program, followed closely by the danger of armed jihadists in Sinai, the rise of Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the impending fall of the Syrian regime and the fate of its enormous arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
All of those issues are very real, and each is frightening on its own. As Channel 2 reported Tuesday evening, there has been a marked rise in recent weeks in the number of Israelis who have gone to the gas mask kit distribution centers in search of protection. There has also been a surge in the number of Israelis who have applied to renew their passports.
However, one feature that all the above-cited issues share is that they are external, existential threats.
Israelis commonly ridicule the conspiracy theories harbored by their Arab neighbors, who see a nefarious Israeli plot behind every trouble or problem afflicting their country and society. For years, Arab leaders successfully distracted their citizens from the domestic problems that stemmed from corruption and other endemic diseases of despotic regimes by turning the citizens’ attention to the perfect external enemy, the Zionist state.
With all due respect to the differences – the Israeli regime is not despotic and the external threats it faces are real and existential – the result nevertheless is similar. With so much of attention being paid to Iran, Egypt and Syria, not to mention the more familiar danger of renewed Palestinian terrorism and Hezbollah’s rockets, scant attention is being turned to domestic issues. Many have suggested that the rising tide of public anxiety over external threats in the past year played a decisive role in the failure of the social protest movement to regain traction this summer.
If that indeed is the case, Israelis are doing themselves a disservice by succumbing to the manipulations of the media and the political leadership, and ignoring domestic issues.
The media manipulate primarily for commercial reasons; the macabre allure of doomsday headlines sells newspapers and rivets viewers, producing increased profits. The government does so because, as in Arab countries, it is far more convenient to have the public focused on a frightening and evil external enemy than on domestic policy that, to understate matters, is less likely to rally equally extensive popular support.
Issues such as education, healthcare, culture and science have all been pushed to the back burner by the myriad regional threats. Admittedly, those domestic issues lack the dramatic allure of terrifying reports about dangerous enemies, but ultimately it is government policy decisions on those ostensibly boring facets of life that will determine the kind of country Israelis live in.
On the assumption that Israel survive – thanks to the country’s powerful army, its vibrant society and its staunch American ally – Israelis simply cannot afford to continue to ignore domestic priorities.
Even if one sets aside questions over the size of the defense budget, the rest of the budget ought to be the subject of a more vigorous public debate than it currently is, particularly in light of the Netanyahu government’s clear priorities.
Declining international test scores are just one measure of the dismal state of education in Israel; the number of hospital beds per thousand residents in Israel is third-last of all OECD countries. While it would not be fair to ascribe these solely to the Netanyahu government’s policies, the current government’s priorities have indisputably made a significant contribution to that sorry state of affairs.
One good example is the Netanyahu government’s decision to prioritize the advancement of the settlement enterprise.
According to a report that appeared in Calcalist in July, the state invests per capita 1.7 times more in the Jewish residents of the territories than in the average Israeli citizen, separate and apart from security costs.
That is not to say that the settler community should be discriminated against. As Israeli citizens, they deserve to receive services from the state just like every other citizen. But not more. The situation at present is that the settler community receives unfair preferential treatment.
Moreover, in addition to routinely spending more money on settlers as citizens, the government has been liberal about footing the bill for patently controversial decisions geared to appease the settler leadership.
It flippantly dedicated millions of shekels to the ludicrous project of sawing off and moving five buildings in Givat Haulpana, and glibly allocated NIS 50 million as a first installment for its new pet project of a university in Ariel.
Surely many Israelis, and perhaps even most, would prefer to see those tens of millions of shekels invested in the science budget, adding new hospital beds, decreasing the size of classrooms in the public school system and so forth.
To say that that is demagoguery is to take the easy way out. Money is fungible.
Every shekel spent in one place cannot then be spent in another.
If Israelis want to prioritize education, healthcare, science and culture, they need to elect a government that will prioritize those issues for them. But to do so, Israelis need to keep their eye on the ball and not let anyone distract them from those issues, which are at least as existentially important as the external threats.
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.