Savir's Corner: Israel’s Facebook generation

The government must listen to the voices and concerns of its constituency.

Activists march on Jerusalem’s Rehov Agron on Sunday. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Activists march on Jerusalem’s Rehov Agron on Sunday.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
We are witnessing a failure of the political leadership in the Middle East. In the Arab world, it takes the form of a rebellion by the youth, which in Egypt and Tunisia toppled two dictators and in Syria, Lybia, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere is creating upheavals that ultimately could result in regime changes across the Arab world.
In Israel, we are seeing a social rebellion of the middle class – the tents of Rothschild Avenue are some sort of Israeli version of Tahrir Square. Not a revolution against a dictatorship, but repulsion of the political leadership, fueled by the anger of the young middle class – a sense of empowerment by a generation demanding change, be it in housing prices, the low salaries of young physicians, or the high cost of basic goods.
What is important in this outcry is not necessarily the outcome of the various specific issues, but the fundamental change in the political process, to a large degree brought about by a young generation and the social networks.
Like many international phenomena, it actually began in the United States, with the election of President Barack Obama, a representative of this new generation.
Obama became the first president elected by the young, his campaign organized through the Internet and carried out on social networks, including the fundraising.
It was therefore not surprising that he began his campaign for a second term with an interview on Facebook. Yes, Obama understands the power of the Facebook generation, and we must, too.
The young, 60 percent of the population in our region, have gained a new sense of their role in the political-social process.
They sense a greater capacity to bring about change through their own selfempowerment – less through belonging to a nation state than through belonging to a community with common interests and views. They also have less respect for and fear of the political leadership, which seems to them disconnected from their day-to-day realities. This has fundamentally changed the relationship among the citizen, the society, the leadership and the social-political process.
From now on, it is not merely a matter of challenging political leaders every four years in elections, but an ongoing challenge linked to daily issues of importance.
The agenda is set by the people no less than by the leaders. It is not only a question of how the young utilize Facebook and its ilk, but also of how the social media have affected the young. They are more individualistic; they have no need for matchmakers in society and politics; they speak a direct, down-to-earth, pragmatic language; they have the capacity to interact quickly with a large number of peers. A Facebook friendship takes minutes to establish. The role of the young within and between societies has changed, probably for good, and for the good.
What are the implications for Israel? First and foremost, the government has to adopt an uncharacteristic trait: It has to listen. It must listen to the voices and concerns of its constituency, and not see in every grievance a conspiracy by opposing forces. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s advisers should not only broadcast dialogues on YouTube in which he preaches in his slick “hasbara” style, but also have him read the vox populi on Facebook. The government needs to meet the needs of the people, mainly the young middle class – create affordable housing, pay reasonable salaries, not make Israel a record-holder in basic food prices, and be an acceptable country in the family of nations. This demands some budget reforms as well, such as less money to political allies and settlements in the occupied territories.
The same changes affect the domain of peace-making. Young Israelis want to live an affordable, peaceful life, in a country that has good relations with the rest of the world. In this, they are not much different from many of their peers – the Facebook generation in the Arab world. It must be clear to our government that peace can no longer be merely with Arab governments. Every Arab leader, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and whoever succeeds Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, will have to listen to the wishes of their youth; therefore, we must make peace with the Arab people – with the Arab youth, and specifically the Palestinian youth. The contours of a final agreement are clear to virtually anyone in their right mind; the partners have changed, for the better.
We must build a bridge between the young in Israel and the young in the Arab world through their means of communication – the social networks, chiefly Facebook.
In this vein, I have launched an initiative on Facebook to enable such communication: YALA – Young Leaders Movement.
In two months, the movement has attracted approximately 35,000 active users per month – thousands of Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians, hundreds of Jordanians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Saudis and Algerians, communicating with each other; not united in their views, but united in their wishes to see the young lead the way to peace and in their disillusionment with the political leadership, united to take part in what globalization has to offer.
They are planning a virtual peace conference by and for the young of the Middle East, at the beginning of 2012, taking care of their well-being and rights.
Change will have to come about, both in Tel Aviv and in Cairo, by heeding the voices of the Facebook generation.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator in the Oslo Accords.