Savir's Corner: Ideological reform

We must make the distinction between Israel – that is still widely accepted and supported in the world as the homeland of the Jewish people – and Israeli policies, which for years now have been rejected.

Soldiers at the Kalandiya checkpoint 300 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
Soldiers at the Kalandiya checkpoint 300 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
Time magazine last year crowned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as “King Bibi,” as he seemed filled with Israeli omnipotence and popularity.
That monarchy did not last very long; last year Netanyahu waged his first war in Gaza, only to discover that Hamas was strengthened by it. On the domestic front, he feared passing watershed legislation on an equal burden of military duty and was even unable to pass a budget, leaving a deficit of NIS 40 billion, while ignoring the wide protest call for social justice.
This was the continuation of the poor performance in his two first terms.
Netanyahu’s Israel is at conflict with all its neighbors, at odds with the rest of the world on his settlement policy, and has an economy in debt, with one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor, and a shaken democracy suffering from the right-wing onslaught on our democratic institutions.
And yet Netanyahu was reelected; a rare case of popularity despite colossal failure. He is now the longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion. He is a good politician, a master of public relations and a dreadful statesman.
Yet, at the dawn of this new government, statesmanship is what Israel needs. It is not just about implementing better policies. The real challenge is to change the ideological outlook that has brought Israel to the brink of the abyss.
Today we are facing the most critical crossroads in our modern history: Between war and peace – the Middle East is in turmoil, witnessing a prolonged struggle among fundamentalist Islam, pragmatic Islam and liberal secularism. The Palestinian problem remains an open wound at the core of the region. Distractions and frustrations are mounting in the West Bank and Hamas has been strengthened at the expense of the more moderate Fatah. An eruption of Palestinian violence would probably bring in its wake a cycle of regional violence, with the involvement of Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida; an axis of radicals, thriving on an unresolved Palestinian problem. In the background, there is also Iran, not yet curbing its nuclear military ambitions. The alternative to the axis of radicals is a coalition of pragmatists including Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, with the support of much of the Gulf and the Maghreb, and headed by the United States.
We are at a crossroads between a possible doomsday scenario and gradual stabilization and security.
The difference for us lies in a viable American-led Israeli-Palestinian peace process leading to a two state solution.
Between economic recovery and a deep socioeconomic crisis – Israel has become a society of growing contrasts and gaps – millionaires in north Tel Aviv and large families who can hardly feed their children in the periphery; a relatively wealthy bourgeoisie in most of the Dan district and people who lack employment and education among haredim and Israeli Arabs.
From this point of view, we hardly belong to the OECD club and are beginning to behave like a developing country. This creates unprecedented social tension among the different strata of our population.
The tension is exacerbated by the fiscal crisis; the state is in debt after having spent recklessly on yeshivot and settlements, while being generous to the oligarchs and cruel to the poor.
We are in need not only of drastic budget cuts, which the new finance minister will serve us as a bittersweet pill, but also of fundamental socioeconomic reform. The main investment has to be in education of the young – our future – in their capacities and values, as well as in the creation of jobs in the high-technology field, also in the periphery, not only in the Tel Aviv area. The incentives for the private sector, the engine of the economy, have to be matched with fair regulations, and with affordable housing inside the Green Line. Foreign investment and tourism must be attracted by less red tape and more peace.
Such reform in policies and priorities can only come as a result of a major cut in the defense budget, which again depends on the peace process front, not to speak of what is wasted on settlements.
Between a vibrant Western democracy and a dangerous deterioration of our democratic fabric – President Obama told us in no uncertain terms that our strategic relationship with the United States is based on a commonality of values and on our vibrant democracy.
Yet it is a democracy with dark clouds, described by The Economist as a flawed democracy. A democracy in danger of virulent affronts by the Right against the High Court of Justice, racist legislation by Avigdor Liberman and Co., attempts of extremist Knesset members to curtail the freedom of speech of the media, the refusing of equal rights to minorities, a third of the country expressing overtly racist views toward Arabs, in between Beitar Jerusalem and the Hebron settlers.
Israel’s success story is a function of its democracy; a democracy in danger means an Israel in danger.
Between international isolation and belonging to the respected family of nations – Israel is more isolated than ever, despite the recent American charm offensive.
At every vote in international forums, all countries in the world vote against us, except for the United States and four or five other countries such as Micronesia.
For a country as small as ours, this is dangerous. We depend on international support for our very legitimacy in the region, on international trade, on investment and on tourism.
Europe has begun boycotting goods produced in the settlements and many call for a boycott of Israel altogether. We are on the road to being South Africa and need, in all urgency, to make a Uturn.
This is especially true in a world of greater interconnectivity and interdependence with new, growing powers such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Globalization is benefiting economies on all continents; we must and can belong, or become an isolated pariah.
At all of these crossroads, the new government under Netanyahu must take a sharp turn for the good, not only in terms of policies, but also in terms of underlying outlooks and values. We are in need of a renewal, of a deeper reform, not only of policy, but also of ideology:  The government has to understand that the rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank must stop. The international community will never accept this. Colonialism, in whichever form and from whatever motive, is over. More important, the Middle East region in which we live will never accept their Palestinian brethren living under occupation, no matter what the causes may have been. And even more important, unless we withdraw from the West Bank into an acceptable, secure two-state relationship, we will cease to be a Jewish and democratic state, the Arabs will become a majority between the Sea and the River. And most important, there is a moral predicament – Israel, the Jewish state, should know best that running the destiny of another people is morally unacceptable and corrupting.
Our freedom is bound to our neighbors’ freedom. Equality, not superiority, must be our guiding light. The new government, and its prime minister, must internalize this view if it wants a chance to secure our democratic and Jewish nature, and with it, our security in the region.
It is time for Israel to break out of the walls that surround us physically and psychologically. The rebirth of Israel was a dramatic break from the Jewish ghetto where we found ourselves in the Diaspora. Now it is time to finally get the ghetto out of us. It is almost part of our national ethos – “the whole world is against us” – which is a popular and generally believed assumption. We must make the distinction between Israel – that is still widely accepted and supported in the world as the homeland of the Jewish people – and Israeli policies, which for years now have been rejected by the world, even the United States, with regard to the settlements, as an expression of our will to hold the grip over the Palestinian people.
This is mostly not related to anti- Semitism; Israel is the victory over anti-Semitism, but is not immune to international criticism.
We must understand that we live in a changed world – economic, scientific and technological development know no boundaries. We have to decide if we want to belong to the family of nations, or to be sidelined as an isolated pariah state. We therefore must adhere to the values prevalent in the Western world, real democracy and true respect for human rights within Israel and vis-à-vis the Palestinians – for our own good and for the benefit of our international relations.
Israel’s dramatic success story is based on its democracy. Despite massive immigration and wars, we kept our democratic fabric. In recent years, dangerous ideologies of superiority, xenophobia and even Jewish racism became stronger and infiltrated the center of our political scene.
We, the government and the people, must reverse the trend and adhere to equality, fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights; a return to the values of our Declaration of Independence. We must deal with all groups within our society with equality and justice – veteran residents and new immigrants; secular, national-religious and haredim; Jews and Arabs; rich and poor. There must be justice and fairness on a national, ethical and social basis. The outcry of the Rothschild Boulevard protests must penetrate the halls of the Knesset and the government.
Our new government needs to move the country to new horizons of security, economic growth, democracy and peace. It cannot do so only by reforming policies. It must fundamentally reform ideological concepts toward greater equality at home, equality with our neighbors and an equal place within the family of nations. Such an ideological reform is the real challenge of our new government and its prime minister.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.Barbara Hurwitz edited this piece.