Break with convention

Leaders have come and gone, but the structural weaknesses from which Israel suffers have remained.

olmert gets winograd 224 (photo credit: GPO)
olmert gets winograd 224
(photo credit: GPO)
One need only read the Winograd Committee report cover-to-cover to appreciate that Israel is in a crisis. In presenting its findings, Winograd was essentially saying: "This is your big chance to sort out your problems." Thirty three years ago, a different committee - the Agranat Commission - produced a similar report following the Yom Kippur War. The similarity between these two reports is spine-chilling. Just as the circumstances in which the Second Lebanon War broke out and the way in which it was run were similar to the Yom Kippur War, so too, in one way or another, the reports that followed go back to the same issues and even offer the same solutions. Thirty three years may have gone by, but it appears, much to our disappointment, that little has changed. Leaders have come and gone, but the structural weaknesses from which Israel's society, government and public mechanism suffer have remained, and even worsened. Clearly, the partial changes in the political and military leadership that have already taken place cannot solve these problems; certainly, they do not constitute a comprehensive solution. It is time for Israel to take a long, hard look at the deterioration of its values and functioning and examine the ways in which this has affected the operation of its two most vital systems - the political and the military. THE PARTIAL report that was published dealt only with the first five days of the war. These were the days in which there was still a national consensus, public support and a relatively low number of casualties. Israel's home front did, indeed, suffer initial hits, but it was still sufficiently protected and functioned more or less satisfactorily. The hard times for the home front came later, as the fighting went on. Hizbullah fired some 150-200 missiles a day at Israel, disrupted daily life in the North and forced the residents of that region to either get used to this new reality or make a getaway to the center of the country. This new chapter highlighted the government's deficiency in providing appropriate solutions to problems revealed by the war. I am not certain that we know the full story, since the state comptroller's report on the home front has not yet been published, and the second part of the Winograd Committee's Report, which also relates to the home front, will be released only in four months time. But everyone living in Israel in the summer of 2006 understands that the home front was in distress, and in need of immediate help. This help was given quickly and efficiently by Israeli civil society through non-profit associations and philanthropic foundations. In fact, over the years immediately preceding the Second Lebanon War, the third sector had gradually gained strength. The government had been cutting down its involvement in social issues, leaving responsibility for this area of activity to the NGOs. Thus the strength of these organizations had slowly been growing and when the war broke out they were already positioned to extend help to tens of thousands of people in the north. At the same time foundations, which received donations from Israel and abroad, also increased their activities. The new generation of wealthy Israelis, some of whom had benefited from the government's privatization initiative, were also called upon to play their part. Indeed, there were those who recognized that situations such as this demand a demonstration of national social responsibility, and answered the call. AS IN the past, the largest Jewish community in the world, some 5 million Jews living in North America, (US and Canada) led the campaign for the north (and to a certain extent, also for Sderot and the Gaza environs). As they did four years earlier, during Operation Defensive Shield, and as they did during the mass waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, once again world Jewry, particularly the Jews of the USA and Canada, came through for the State of Israel. The call to action was instantly translated into a massive, urgent fund-raising campaign, which began immediately and continued for a number of weeks. This special campaign raised $350 million, which reached their targets in Israel with speed and accuracy. Some of these funds are still being used for biannual programs which address post-war problems such as post-trauma intervention, education, community capacity, economic opportunities and others. This help reached dozens of towns and was a central component of the immediate response to the war, and to the rehabilitation of the north in its aftermath. As always, US Jewry also assisted Israel in America's political arena, in PR efforts in the media and with any need that Israel presented either directly or indirectly. The existing paradigm of Israel-US relations appears to have been preserved. The Jews rally round in time of crisis, they make their contribution, but beyond that they leave Israel to run its own internal affairs, supporting the Israeli government platform and its decisions, including the controversial ones (such as the disengagement). They do not, however, interfere in what is considered Israel's "internal territory." THE TIME has come to change this paradigm. The situation revealed by the war, and highlighted by the Winograd Report, also requires renewed thinking with regard to Israel-Diaspora relations. At a time when the very existence of Israel is under threat, and Israeli society is being weakened by the internal processes that it is going through, the existing parameters of Israel-Diaspora relations are no longer sufficient. For Jews the world over, Israel is not just the realization of a dream, it is a daily reality to which they feel connected, that they accompany, and about which they are greatly concerned. Israel, for its part, admits that it takes into account the well-being and security of the Jews living outside its borders in its foreign policy considerations and sometimes even in its military actions (for example, during the intifada). This is not a "New Protocols of the Elders of Zion," but rather, a mutual understanding that 12 million Jews who are scattered all over the world, indeed feel a sense of mutual responsibility and concern for one another's safety. For this reason, I believe that US Jewry needs to deepen its involvement in Israel's internal issues. Without crossing the red line of taking a political stand, they need to make their voices heard, to offer advice on matters which had previously been off-limits. It is not my intention that they should have an influence over deciding who will run the country or who will lead it. That must remain the prerogative and the responsibility of Israel's citizens. But the largest Jewish community in the world, a community that has achieved a status that no other before it has ever achieved in the history of the Jewish people, cannot remain a mere observer, nor only partially involved. It is necessary for Israel to establish manifest or latent communication channels with the leadership of the Jewish community in the US as well as with other Jewish communities in the world. It is also necessary to maintain an ongoing dialogue of consultation and an exchange of opinions on Israel's internal affairs. These should include, for example, social gaps and vulnerable populations in Israeli society on one hand, and issues of peace and even war on the other hand, since every Israeli policy decision and every step that Israel takes also has implications for the situation of Jewish communities wherever they may be. It is true that there are formal mechanisms for this, such as the Jewish Agency, and there are also informal contacts with Jewish organizations in the US through meetings and visits; but it would be appropriate to institutionalize and regulate this activity. Israel must understand and accept that world Jewry has something to offer in this field too and that its actions stem from real and genuine concern for the State of Israel. World Jewry will have to overcome the inhibitions that have prevented more significant statements on Israel's internal affairs up till now. There are times in which it is necessary to break with convention and accepted practice and choose a different course of action. This is the time. The writer is senior vice-president and director-general of United Jewish Communities' Israel Office.