Where Leaders Fail

The Israeli and Palenstinian people hold the future of Israel in their capable hands
Last November, the Israeli media were busy covering a spate of serious allegations of corruption in Jerusalem that reached right to the top. Television viewers were inundated with images of Omri and Gilad Sharon, Prime Minister Sharon’s two rather obdurate sons, who were valiantly trying to stave off accusations that they had played a part in various million-dollar campaign-financing capers involving their father. The Sharons’ shenanigans occupied only one ring of this media circus. The deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was also under suspicion for taking a bribe; Naomi Blumenthal, the deputy minister of infrastructure, was charged on several counts of bribery; and Amram Mitzna, the former mayor of Haifa and one-time leader of the Labour Party, was alleged to have received money under the table from a contractor. The list went on.

The odd thing about these corruption scandals – which could strike an outside observer as almost comic relief, certainly compared to the diet of far grimmer news from that part of the world – was that many Israelis seemed to think they were unique, one of a kind, utterly unlike corruption scandals anywhere else in the world. The flip side of that thinking was the suspicion– which may indeed be unique to Israel – that such scandals somehow signalled the demise of the country. One exasperated commentator, speaking about the topic on the popular television current-affairs show, Popolitika, remarked: “To me, it seems as if the boat [i.e. Israel] is sinking and that it is now every man for himself.” And Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, writing on the same subject last summer, said: “There is time to change course, but not much.. . . The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.”

Yet driving along the serpentine Ayalon freeway, or sipping arak in a crowded bar on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, or shopping in an open-air market in Beer Sheva, I found it hard, at first, to imagine what Burg might have meant.

There is a superficial air of normality about the country. The al-Aqsa intifada, triggered when Ariel Sharon took his famous walk on the Temple Mount in September, 2000, is now well into its fourth year and there have been more than a hundred suicide bombings that have claimed almost a thousand lives. But most Israelis have learned to treat this omnipresent danger as some sort of natural cataclysm, akin to living on the slopes of an active volcano. In the beginning, each new bombing would dominate the news and preoccupy the country for days at a time; now Israelis are more likely to learn of fresh attacks from a news-crawl across the bottom of their TV screens. Bomb sites are quickly cleared of debris and victims, and life is returned to a semblance of the routine in record time.

This does not mean, however, that the intifada is having a diminishing impact on Israeli life, only that it has retreated to a deeper, less visible level where it can wreak havoc on Israeli culture from the inside. You sometimes catch glimpses of that impact – and then only indirectly – in the impatience and nervousness of just about every Israeli you meet, in the hyper-aggressiveness of the young, or in the palpable denial in the air. Many Israelis, for instance, appear to have convinced themselves that the terrorist attacks have nothing to do with them or with the actions of their government. They point to September 11 and to Al Qaeda’s attacks in Afghanistan, Africa, and Turkey as proof that terrorism is a world-wide phenomenon – part of the clash of civilizations, so to speak. The very randomness of the attacks, some Israelis told me, have persuaded them that terrorism in Israel is simply the price they have to pay for being a free society. Yet for all that, the morale in Israel today is probably at its lowest ebb since 1973, when Defence Minister Moshe Dayan considered deploying nuclear weapons midway through the Yom Kippur War as a last-ditch effort to save the nation.

Another factor in the general malaise is the severe downturn in the Israeli economy. For one thing, huge sums are being spent on the defence of tiny, zealous communities like Hebron, Bet El, and Ofra that have dug themselves into the occupied territories, even as thousands of public- and high-school teachers have lost their jobs. The Israeli education system, once the pride of the nation, has slipped into free fall. It is not only that class sizes have grown, with a corresponding decline in the quality of education; the ideological foundations of the education system keep shifting as well, undermining what little sense of progress there once was. During the final months of Prime Minister Rabin’s tenure in 1995, the Labour government commissioned a host of new history books that were meant to retell the founding mythology in a manner that would make it easier for Israelis to live with their Arab neighbours. The books were written but never included in the public-school curricula, and the net effect was not only a loss of direction, but a sense that some potential opening to the future was closing down.

Unemployment in Israel is approaching 11 percent and climbing rapidly. This time around it is the middle class – architects, engineers, lawyers, accountants, musicians, the skilled tradespeople – who are hardest hit. For a small country such as Israel, this is particularly problematic because out-of-work Israeli professionals tend to seek opportunities abroad. The German embassy in Tel Aviv has entertained so many visa applications that it is no longer prepared to make the numbers public, presumably so as not to embarrass the Israeli government.

The gap between the very small percentage of wealthy Israelis and the far larger pool of lower-income people is now wider than in any western country. A recent study shows that infant-mortality rates in the poorer south Tel Aviv-Jaffa district are three times as high as in wealthier north and central Tel Aviv, facts that shock many Israelis who believe that the original medicare system is still working. And it goes without saying that tourism and the high-tech industry, yesterday’s pillars of the Israeli economy, have collapsed. A mere four years ago construction was booming in every region. Now one routinely comes across abandoned shells of new industrial complexes and office buildings that betray the signs of sudden bankruptcy. Even Israel’s high culture – the plastic arts, music, theatre, and literature – has become rather more nostalgic and sentimental than visionary. Artists these days seem either hooked on the past or obsessively and safely trendy. Seldom does one hear or see or touch anything that points toward the future.

To be sure, the situation among the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, in the hollowed-out towns of Jenin or Qalqilya, or among the listless and angry youth at Israeli checkpoints, has deteriorated even further. The fact is that on both sides of the eight-metre-high fence snaking in and out of the Green Line that marks the pre-1967 borders of Israel, people seem caught between the will to live and hopelessness.

The situation is desperate, and desperate times call for desperate solutions. The most recent – and I would argue the most hopeful – of such solutions is a citizens’ initiative called the Geneva Accord. Calling for a separate Palestinian state in almost all of Gaza and the West Bank, with Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, it was unveiled last November to mild fanfare and virulent criticism. Despite widespread coverage and a high-profile “launch” in Geneva on December 1, it is still unclear whether the accord will sink without a trace, or go on to become the long-awaited breakthrough. But to appreciate the sheer audacity and courage it took to come up with such a plan in the first place, we first need to sort through the wreckage of earlier efforts.

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