Emanuel Shahaf

Fear of vision

We didn’t need the recent poll to tell us that our political leaders are an uninspiring bunch. Nevertheless, it’s a little disconcerting, to say the least, that we find ourselves in very difficult straits politically, economically and socially with tremendous long term concerns and there is not a single mainstream politician out there inspiring us or telling us where we should be heading. I always thought that this is what leaders would do. As the saying goes, the best wind won’t help us sail our boat if the captain doesn’t know where he wants to go.

So what is it about our captain(s) – do they really not know where to go ? The last Prime Minister to express a reasonably cogent vision where he wanted to go, pursuing a clear if maddeningly mismanaged path towards the two-state solution, was Ehud Barak. Neither Arik Sharon nor Ehud Olmert and definitely not Benjamin Netanyahu ever expressed a clear vision of where they would like to take the country other than their total commitment to the security of Israel. That commitment led them occasionally to make decisions which pointed towards a reasonably clear direction mainy in the context of the Peace Process. Other than that they failed to express their views with regard to where and how exactly they would like the country to end up, when it’s all over and done. What is their vision for the State of Israel, thriving in the Middle East, among our neighbors? Olmert even went so far as to discount the importance of a clear longterm vision and put the emphasis on management skills. His, incidentally, weren’t something to write home about, judging by the report of the Winograd commission which investigated the performance of his government during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Just wanting to keep Israel within secure and recognized borders as a Jewish and democratic state doesn’t pull it anymore. It’s a cop-out. Secure? By what criteria? Recognized ? By whom? Jewish and democratic? People are beginning to ask what that really means. The term is being stretched into very strange directions. Politicians throw these slogans around everyday but they have become meaningless. There is no worldview, there is nothing behind them because neither is it clear what exactly they mean, nor do they imply any kind of proactive measure that could be taken to achieve them. None. We can be in favor of these minimum standards basically by just reacting to what’s going on around us and repeating the slogans ad nauseam. That is really what Israel’s politics have been all about since the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip which happened already in 2005, lest anybody forgot.

I do not know, of course, if our former PMs and the present one did or do have a vision for the future. If they do, they haven’t told us and it seems to me that they are afraid of expressing a clear view of what they would want the country to be like. All politicians are afraid for several reasons:

1. The amount of uncertainty in this region is enormous. To express a clear vision under such circumstances may expose them to public ridicule: “How can you call for… when the situation is like…”

2. The public has been kept in a coma induced by the media and political parties and most people have no idea how serious the situation really is, nor do they appreciate how much new thinking is required and how many cherished positions have to be discarded. Accordingly, the political leader who dares to speak out bluntly enough may be in for some serious political clobbering in the polls and risk his or her political future.

3. Telling everybody where we want to go politically may mean giving up valuable bargaining positions in negotiations with the Palestinians. Since we are generously imbued with the zero-sum mindset, talking about agreeing to anything means giving up something else, so it’s a lot safer not to. Telling where we want to go economically or socially may generate resistance from the economical elites or the religious leadership. Why make powerful enemies?

4. Having a clear vision means that you are likely going to be measured on your performance with regard to achieving that vision. It’s a lot less risky not to express the vision clearly, it may yet come to haunt you. Muddling through is a lot safer.

5. It’s dangerous to express a clear vision. There are quite a few lunatics out there who think they know what G-d really wants. One of them already killed a Prime Minister who expressed a clear enough vision, Yitzhak Rabin. They are unlikely to stand down and let another one work at realizing his or her vision without trying to put a stop to it, unless that vision conforms to one close enough to their’s.

Still surprised why our politicians aren’t exactly visionaries? So, assuming we had a leadership willing to express a vision, what should that vision entail?

Do we want a liberal democratic state that is Jewish simply because a large majority of its citizens are Jewish or do we want an ethnocentric state whose Jewish nature is prescribed by law and regulations where non-Jews are discriminated against by design ?

Do we want a state that occupies another people who happen to be living in this land for many generations or do we want a state that lives within internationally recognized borders that have been agreed upon with its Palesrtinian neighbors in negotiations?

Do we want a state that treats refugees and migrants humanely based on a clear policy adhering to international norms and law or do we want a state that kicks out the strangers from amongst us without remorse no matter how miserable, by making up the laws to do it?

Do we want a state with freedom of religion and freedom from religion where people can marry who they want and raise their children whichever way they want even if they are converts to Judaism, and matters of personal and family status, if at all, are regulated by the state alone and are not subject to religious authorities of any kind ?

Do we want a state where money, profits and political power are concentrated among a privileged few, labor unions are disempowered and income diffrentials are among the highest in the developed world or do we want a country where everybody can make a decent living by working at a job with security and social benefits and the weak are taken care of through a social welfare system?

Do we want a country where education is privatized and you get what you pay for meaning that the lower income groups don’t get much or do you want a country where public education is fully funded by the state and schools in lower income areas get preferential funding to eradicate the large gaps in educational outcomes ?

Do we want a country where healthcare is privatized and you get what you pay for mainly through expensive supplemental insurance coverage or do you want a country where high quality public health care is available to everybody regardless of his economic status ?

These are all questions that courageous politicians will have to address in the vision they present to the voter, if they choose to do so. Until now, none of the leaders of the major parties have made their vision regarding the above clear and the public and the media as well have let them get away with it.

The politician who has the guts to verbalize a clear vision for Israel’s future and will inspire the public of the worthiness of that vision, he or she is the one that should get the vote. Until that happens, we’ll continue to muddle through.

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is Vice Chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Vice-Chairman of the Israeli-German Society (IDG), Co-Chair of the Federation Movement (, member of the council at and author of "Identity: The Quest for Israel's Future".
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