Alon Tal

Casualty of war: a genuine debate on who we want to be

Will the upcoming elections fail, once again, to focus on the social agenda?

When the IDF took out Ahmed Jabari – it also may have slain any meaningful discourse in the upcoming Knesset elections. As expected, Israel became all-absorbed in yet another military clash with the Hamas-led Gaza Strip entity. The Middle East is a tough neighborhood and the rules of the game here require that the relentless barrage of missiles fired by our enemies be silenced and deterrence restored.

From the start, cynics already claimed that the timing of the recent round was driven by the dynamics of elections. Both the disappointing public response to the Likud Beiteinu merger and the shrunken dimensions of Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut party in the polls were sure to benefit from successful skirmishes with the outmanned and outgunned radical Islamists. The more ingenuous amongst us tended to see the Pillar of Defense as an ineluctable outcome of government policies that seek to manage the Palestinian conflict rather than solve it. The fact that we were two months away from an election – just the time the Cast Lead operation was launched prior to the 2009 elections — was probably a discouraging coincidence.

All the same – the results politically promise to be identical and constitute a fundamental paradox of Israeli democracy. Within a matter of days – the election “agenda” reverted back to the same security issues that have informed previous decades and a steady polarization of the Israeli electorate. Whether a conciliatory or uncompromising approach to Palestinian nationalism is the better strategy to ensure Israel’s security was once again heatedly debated. Ultimately, the rhetoric is worn out and unimaginative primarily because it’s not clear whether this is fully something that we can control.

It should be different. In the summer of 2011, one in seven Israelis took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the way Israeli society was going. In a refreshing rejoinder to the stereotype that Israelis are complacent and jaded in matters involving social justice, the young protesters brought – within just a few weeks – a remarkable cross-section of the citizenry together in a common call for greater solidarity and less greed along with a national program to address the pathology of inequality and the fact that many Israelis really can’t make ends meet. This discussion even included concerns for the “commons” with Israel’s often neglected environment also part of the progressive consensus that called for reform. This should have informed the elections campaigns of all political parties.

For these elections might have been about the kind of society we want in Israel. They might have forced parties to take a stand as to whether they want to continue the slow privatization of Israel’s natural resources or reverse these trends; to take a position as to whether corporate income tax really should be among the lowest in the West or whether basic food commodities should be taxed or not.

Politicians should have had to explain whether Israel should grant rights to international corporations to export our abundant but ultimately finite natural gas reserves or whether they should be saved for future generations; whether Israel’s classrooms should remain the most crowded in the OECD and our teachers the most poorly paid – or whether we want an educational system designed for universal excellence. The public should have been able to vote about whether ultra-orthodox men and Arab women should be encouraged to enter the workforce and whether universal conscription and national service need to be mandatory. Does Israel want to recognize the legitimacy of all streams in Jewish life or continue down the road of Orthodox hegemony? Are the subsidies given to West Bank settlements truly a national priority? And what should we do about foreign workers and the flood of African refugees?

All of these are issues that Israel alone can and must decide. They don’t depend on the good graces of Washington, the Quartet or the whims of a recalcitrant, fanatical Hamas regime. They are a function of deciding where we want to invest our collective resources and designing social policies accordingly. Israel could become a more compassionate and healthy society, much as Zionists always dreamed it might be. Israel is ready to have this conversation.

Translating the new national consensus for a two-state solution into a palatable agreement is crucial – but success does not entirely depend on Israel. There are many other things that do. That’s the paradox. Human lives were not the only casualties of the missiles that fell in Beersheva and the air force sorties in Gaza. Rather we may have lost that unique opportunity provided by democracies to discuss the kind of society in which we want to live and what we might do to make sure that it does not remain a dream.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.