Five key challenges for Israel at 68
For many who grew up with Israel, took part in its construction, contributed to its achievements, fought in its wars, suffered its setbacks, reveled in its triumphs and saw it transformed in their lifetime, the marking of its 68th Independence Day is a bittersweet occasion. The pride they feel in Israel’s accomplishments is matched by a deep concern for its ability to continue to pursue its mission of building a just society that will ensure its sustainability over time.
The real challenges that face Israel today are neither external nor military (although these undoubtedly exist and will persist); they are first and foremost internal and principled. They require a careful, honest and frequently painful assessment of recent trends within the country in order to recalibrate Israel’s course in the years ahead. Many individuals and groups are engaged in just such a reassessment; it has yet to penetrate the official sphere. Israel’s survival in the profound sense of the term depends on its capacity to come to terms with its inner self.
The State of Israel was constructed on the ashes of World War II both as a haven for the decimated Jewish people and as a source of hope for a reconstructed world. The ideals of “liberty, justice and peace”, along with “full social and political equality for all its citizens without distinction of race, creed and gender”, provide the essence of the vision embedded in its Declaration of Independence.
The first challenge facing Israel today is how to revive these principles in light of the many worrisome patterns that have emerged in recent years. These include the systematic discrimination of Arab citizens of Israel, growing ethnic and religious bias, ongoing gender inequalities and rampant socioeconomic discrepancies. As General Yair Golan so astutely admonished, “there is nothing easier and simpler than hating the foreigner. There is nothing easier and simpler than fear-mongering and sowing alarm. There is nothing easier and simpler than to be brutish, morally bankrupt and self-righteous.” The task before anyone who wants to assure Israel’s survival is clear. In Golan’s courageous words: “we must discuss how to extract from our midst the signs of intolerance, violence and internal destruction that lead to moral deterioration”. Put succinctly, Israeli society must urgently reclaim its human face.
The second challenge, one which follows directly from this normative brief, requires a thorough overhaul of the discourse prevalent in the public realm. In the midst of a barrage of words and vitriol, Israelis have lost their capacity to disagree, debate, discuss and explore differences. Human rights organizations have been virtually pilloried for documenting Israeli human rights abuses; the loyalty of their activists has been queried (the recent attacks on B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are cases in point). Prominent members of the defense establishment, such as the late Meir Dagan, have been debunked publicly for raising questions on the advisability of Israel’s course. The upper echelons of the military, most notably Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, have been berated for demanding restraint in the use of live fire and insisting on adherence to standing orders in this regard. And now Yair Golan has been attacked by the Prime Minister himself for calling for a collective reckoning on Holocaust Memorial Day. In no instance has the response been substantive.
No serious self-examination can be conducted without open discussion; no vital policy refinements or alterations can be made without an exchange of views. But in the prevalent climate in Israel today the distinction between the free statement of opinions — sometimes blatantly prejudicial, harmful and even overtly racist — and the serious discussion of differences has never been more palpable. Curtailing debate not only blunts basic freedoms, it creates societal paralysis of the highest order. In a year in which Israel must confront inescapable realities and make difficult decisions, a premium must be placed on encouraging open exchange not only beneath the surface, but also respectfully in the public domain.
Indeed, the third, and arguably the most immediate, challenge facing Israel today focuses on its relations with the Palestinians. By all accounts, the illusion of a status quo in the West Bank no longer holds water. The international community has lost patience with Israeli settlement expansion and with the ongoing occupation; the Palestinian demand for self-determination is being pressed both on the ground and in global forums, and most Israelis recognize that what has been cannot continue forever. An inequitable one-state reality is emerging which not only defies universal and Jewish norms, but puts into doubt Israel’s ability to maintain itself both as a democratic and a predominantly Jewish state.
Underneath the apparent stalemate there is currently a flurry of activity within Israel to parallel the reengagement of the Quartet, the French initiative to convene an international conference on Israel-Palestine this summer and the reengagement of key external actors. On the fringes of the political spectrum, there is increased talk of (vastly different) forms of a single state. Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked is already preparing legislation to impose Israeli law on the West Bank (a laundered form of annexation). Renewed efforts are being made — most recently by the main opposition party, the Zionist Union — to institute unilateral measures to separate between Israel proper and the bulk of the Palestinians residing across the Green Line. A growing interest is being evinced — by pundits, civil society activists and even President Reuven Rivlin — in confederal alternatives. Sooner rather than later, Israel is going to have to decide (either under outside pressure or preferably on its own initiative) how, for its own sake, it moves towards bringing about a workable end to five decades of occupation and a century of conflict.
It is unclear whether such a policy shift can be conducted by the present government. Not only has Binyamin Netanyahu consistently resisted dealing with this issue in the past, since his return to office in 2009 his defiance has coincided with the gradual erosion of governability in the country.
In fact, the fourth challenge facing Israel in the coming years relates precisely to this issue. It concerns not only the ability to make and implement decisions across a broad spectrum of issues — ranging from the future of natural gas and Israel’s other precious resources, the budget, religion and state, and social equity to the continuously central question of security — but also the capacity to maintain the viability of Israel’s governing institutions. The crisis of governability has affected the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, resulting in the personalization and centralization of power, increased public corruption and growing citizen alienation. It has been most acutely evident in the emasculation of informal as well as formal checks and balances. And it has adversely affected Israel’s security, as the draft of the Comptroller General’s report on the Gaza operation of 2014 indicates.
Attention to the restoration of governability — less passion-evoking than other matters but by no means less significant — requires both expertise and a commitment to best practices. Various institutes and expert panels have proposed a series of much-needed reforms in the civil service, in the judiciary, in local government and in the conduct of decision-makers. Adopting and carrying out these suggestions is an increasingly urgent imperative, as the actual operations of the state must be improved if it is to continue to subsist.
The fifth and final challenge faced by Israel and Israelis, at the same time the most elusive and the most profound, deals with the identity of the state and its relationship to its citizens. If in the past a delicate balance was struck between the Jewish and democratic elements of Israeli statehood, in recent years the state and the nation have been conflated, yielding a narrow, ethnocentric, interpretation of the nature of Israel. This now hegemonic definition has undermined the civic basis of Israeli identity, replacing it with a constricted notion of Jewish sovereignty which belittles the place of non-Jewish citizens and subsequently chips away at its democratic foundations. In the process, the state itself has been weakened, subjugated as it is to specific interests at the expense of the common good.
For many Israeli citizens, however, Israeli citizenship is an overriding bond and a source of identity which can encompass a variety of definitions of religious, cultural and historical identity (predominantly Jewish, but with room for other legacies as well). Reinstating citizenship and the state in this inclusive sense is for them the key to Israeli durability.
For the generation that grew up with the state, Israel today is — for better and for worse — unrecognizable. Along with the joy of marking yet another anniversary, they are looking for ways to refresh Israel’s trajectory through reasserting and updating its guiding norms, the vibrancy of its public spaces, its decision-making will, its capacities and its democratic and Jewish identity. Their success will guarantee that the country will not go, unlike individuals who reach the age of 68, into permanent retirement.
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, is Dean of the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo