Two weeks ago, US President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address. The importance of the State of the Union address has grown considerably in recent years. Originally, the address was meant to serve as an opportunity for the President to update both houses of Congress on matters of national importance.
Yet the advent of mass media transformed the State of the Union into a national address as its audience grew from Congress to the American public as a whole. State of the Unions were first carried into American homes by the radio and later by television. And as the medium changed so did the message. Soon, the State of the Union address morphed into a podium from which US Presidents would outline their vision for America’s future.
Historically, Presidents have used State of the Unions in order to present their agenda for the coming year, launch new initiatives, identify America’s most pressing problems and offer ways to overcome insurmountable obstacles, be it the realm of domestic of foreign policy. George W Bush introduced the term “Axis of Evil” in one of his addresses while Lyndon Baines Johnson focused on the War on Poverty.
In his address last week Obama promised Americans a year of action in which he will break Washington’s political deadlock by issuing more executive orders, push for new immigration reform and propose an increase in minimum wage. It was not Obama’s finest speech, nor was it an exceptional State of the Union address, but it did fulfill its main obligation, informing Americans as to the state of their union.
Sadly, Israel has no State of the Union address. There is no one occasion on which the Prime Minister formally addresses the Knesset and the Israeli people in order to introduce his government’s domestic and foreign agenda for the upcoming year. To some, the Prime Minister’s address at the Caesarea conference has become a sort of State of the Union as this was the platform from which Arik Sharon announced his plan to unilaterally disengage from Gaza. To others, it is the Bar Ilan address in which PM Netanyahu announced a temporary halt of construction in Israeli settlements.
Truth be told, Israeli Prime Ministers are not fond of addressing the Israeli public or the Israeli Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu is especially apprehensive of such occasions. Netanyahu’s favorite medium is a YouTube clip, a two minute sound bite in which he makes no commitments, outlines no vision and defines no goals. In his YouTube channel Netanyahu only talks of the present or the past, but never of the future and what lies ahead.
An Israeli State of the Union address would benefit Israel in several ways first of which is much needed structure. Henry Kissinger famously remarked that Israel has no foreign policy but only a domestic one. I would amend this statement and say that Israel has no foreign or domestic policy, period. But if he were to deliver a State of the Union address, the Israeli PM would be forced to elaborate on such policies and, more importantly, demonstrate that he has actually formulated such policies. Given the chaotic Middle Eastern reality, Israeli governments usually function without a planned course of action simply swaying to the Mediterranean rhythm of regional events.
State of the Unions would therefore force structure where chaos now reigns.
Moreover, in a State of the Union address, the Israeli Prime Minister would have to define his goals for the upcoming year thereby enabling the Israeli public to evaluate his government’s performance. Finally, such an annual address would ensure that Israelis hear from their Prime Minister an assessment of the challenges Israel faces and the actions it must take to guarantee its safety and prosperity.
Some may think it ludicrous to force a head of government to address his people once a year. I do not. I think it necessary given the fact that Israel finds itself at an historic crossroads. I think it necessary given the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to tell us where he is leading us. And I also think it necessary since Israelis have a right to know what Netanyahu’s vision is for our future.