Can Someone Offer a Vision for Israel's Future?

As a new immigrant tries to find his way among Israeli political parties, his griping about what is wrong with Israel turns him into an oldtimer.

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Dr. Harold Goldmeier,

Dr. Harold Goldmeier
Dr. Harold Goldmeier

The concern I have as the election campaign draws to a close in Israel is not how many parties Bibi will have to placate to form a government. My concern is how few voters will turn out to vote. I suspect that there is a malaise among the voting public that will be reflected in low voter turnout. Israelis I speak with outside the religious beltway in the Center of the country may just sit out the entire process.

As an oleh chadash, a new immigrant to Israel, I am not an expert on anything Israeli, but I already have an opinion on everything. I am particularly at a loss trying to moor to any one party standing for election to the Knesset, the first time I have the honor to vote here. It seems each party platform addresses foreign affairs, and one or two other narrow issues of personal pleasure. I lose a lot of the nuance not being able to read the Hebrew papers or understand the Hebrew news. But I read many publications and listen to interviews with candidates when they speak English.

Security is the preeminent issue for Israel. It does not dominate in this election. Everyone in Israel is convinced Israel capably protects itself from Arab threats with its omnipotent self-defense apparatus. The issue in this campaign is how much more land Israel legally or with new construction annexes, de facto preventing a Palestinian state on the west and north. Candidates see, to me to be only arguing about meters.

They ignore the implications as if there are none. And, you must admit, other issues like the ballooning budget deficit, near slave wages of workers with a collapsing middle class, kids having to work 2 and 3 jobs to make ends meet, falling incomes, a near bankrupt health care system, rising taxes, monopolistic /price fixing corporations dominating the retail/wholesale markets, three or four banks for the entire country (are they kidding?), rising home prices, flagging small businesses, the problems in education we wrote about before etc., are given short shrift by the candidates. No one professes a vision for the nation, what it must look like in the future, how its people will live and prosper.

As an invitee to the Jerusalem Post’s Diplomatic Conference in Herzliya on December 12th, I came away empty handed after speeches by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni among others. Bennett was not asked to speak, and is the hot candidate just prior to the election.

Livni and Liberman were then two of the three leading candidates likely to wield influence in the next government. Mr. Liberman’s subsequently resigned as Foreign Minister, and rumors that Livni will not serve in the Knesset without a clear voter mandate continue to swirl up to election day.

Liberman will continue to control his party from the sidelines, setting policy via government portfolios held by his associates. Livni thinks she might find herself in the government, because of her wide personal appeal in foreign capitals at a time when Israel is the world’s stepchild.

Neither one expressed a vision for Israel in the next decade at a time when voters crave inspiration. We live on the sizzle, not the steak. None of the Israeli politicians seem to get it.

Listening to and reading about their reasons for running for the Knesset, I am struck by how they focus on the past to set the pace for the present offering too little vision of Israel’s future. They are trapped in the inescapable web of the Palestinian Arab conflict, and the resulting tension and trappings of international relations. Voters want to hear something about their dreams for the future of the nation. They are not energizing young people or anyone else for that matter.

The Conference was my first live exposure to Mr. Liberman. He is not the mulligrub, bandersnatch I picture him to be from press reports and criticisms from other Foreign Ministers. Liberman is polished, a natty dresser, and portrays a calm, not an angry demeanor while talking about war and civil control.

Liberman cares deeply about the fate of Israel, but, as psychoanalyst Alfred Adler’s observed, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.

Liberman’s only tool to protect Israel seems to be a sledgehammer. Liberman envisions little chance for peace negotiations succeeding – ever. His is a future where Palestinian Arab aspirations are ”contained.” Israel must only keep them from getting too violent, while it tries to improve their standard of living. He learned that style of governing in the Soviet Union, and look how well it works for them. The states de-unionized, and throughout the nation, remaining nationalist aspirants are in revolt.

Ms. Livini communicates better than Liberman. She has a better command of the English language, and more rapport with an audience. She approaches the brink of a vision talking about her parents’ dreams for an Israel in which their little girl will celebrate life in peaceful coexistence with Israel’s neighbors.

Livni says she wants all Israeli children to prosper in a Jewish democratic state free from clashes of religions, political delegitimization, and without constant world condemnation of our people. Livni delivers her message  body language that adds exclamation to her words, and a constant smile. I am under the impression from what is written and spoken about her that Livni’s time in politics has passed. I doubt that is true after witnessing her energetic presentation at the Post’s Conference, but she must take her message to the next level, and talk about what life will be like in that Jewish democratic state. That is faint praise for her, and is only meaningful in comparison to her co-speaker at the conference.

Bennett did not speak at the Diplomatic Conference, and that may tell you something about the insights JPost editors have into the electorate. They did not recognize his appeal or anticipate his meteoric rise. Bennett’s appeal, which I personally think might fade as voters actually cast ballots, is his Palestinian policy message that keeps him on Bibi's right. He will take away votes from smaller right wing parties and from Bibi. These voters want a single stronger right-center party to hold Bibi’s feet to the fire in responses to international pressures and Palestinian political moves. Bennett's is also a fresh face with little reason to believe he will be corrupt.

American voters jumped at every fresh face that came along in the last election no matter how limited their platforms and politically inexperienced. Bennett’s appeal reminds me of guys like Cain, Christie, Rubio, etc., who were fresh-faced and clean and new. They were then the straws in a campaign mired in muck, but quickly sank. I am not so impressed by Bennett’s party platform, but it is his business acumen the new government will need facing massive deficit spending and a slowing economy.

I was living in Illinois when Mr. Obama announced his candidacy for President. The U. S. was mired in three wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, and a worldwide war on terrorists. The American people were suffering financially, emotionally, and the fabric of society seemed to be unraveling. High watermarks were being reached everyday in the number of bankruptcies, foreclosures, unemployment, suicides and mental health breakdowns, school dropouts, and gang violence.

Things got worse into the election debate with the hardening of political viewpoints, and personal attacks. Then the message of “Change” from the Obama camp began to sneak out. The people listened, and were inspired. Neither the details of his plan nor the value one ascribes to the concept are important here. Hope, vision, a sense of a better future, a message of good and possibilities, motivated and lifted the nation. A people’s campaign swept the country, young people in particular, and the message became the medium.

Author Deborah White succinctly remembers Obama’s message of change, and if Israel’s candidates are able to take a leaf from that playbook voters here might respond.

We need to hear about our “guiding principles” from Israeli candidates for education, environmental policy, job creation, living wages, affordable housing availability, and better delivery of health and medical care. Israelis want to hear about an equitable tax policy for all groups. An economic policy needs to be presented that encourages small and mid-cap businesses, replaces regulations that keep the monopolistic grip on trade and commerce – a policy that shows how prosperity will touch all citizens. One of the major issues in Israel today is who serves in the military and national service corps after high school, and who wrangles exemptions. This issue is tearing asunder the sense of unity and purpose Israel must maintain to survive.

Most of all, we deserve to hear from politicians how they will ensure a descent standard of living for the working middle class. Wages here do not match spending power. The cost of consumer goods approach double that in other advanced countries, while earning power is much less. IDF veterans need a more seamless transition from active duty to civilian life. They need fewer interruptions to their careers and education post active military duty. The silence to the myriad of malevolencies is deafening in this election campaign.

We need to hear about more equitable enforcement and expansion of our civil rights. This must be complemented by a change in government policy regarding the police and their interactions with the civilian population. The people do not seem to hold them as much in high regard as they fear the police. “To serve and protect” is not the motto people who live in Israel ascribe to our police. Officer Friendly needs to make aliyah.

We are fighting boycotts everywhere from university lecture halls to grocery store shelves. Young people want to travel freely and safely. Some want to be able to wear a kippa in Copenhagen, Berlin, and Paris without fear of attack. Israelis want to attend universities overseas and international conferences where we are not the objects of scorn and ridicule and bias.

Yes, we heard nothing new at the Diplomatic Conference that might inspire and promise voters a new day. John Kennedy offered a vision for America enlivening the nation by challenging young Americans to ask “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty and the greatest civil rights legislative movement in the history of the world. Both Presidents envisioned a nation where no one goes to bed hungry, without shelter, and free from institutionalized racism.

Can we wait until next year’s conference agenda?