April 25, 2004

At 56, Israeli society is mature enough to look in the mirror and see itself as it is. The qualities that best characterize the state of the Jewish State in its 56th year of independence are keen vision and finely tuned senses. It’s the year Israel came out of the closet. What had been repressed, swept aside, hidden, or downplayed for years has, with a wave of the hand, been placed on the national agenda. That’s good, even better than good.

A comprehension of reality has slowly sunk in. Very slowly. In the past, the political right dared not publicly abandon its delusions and its bombastic words, as if there were no reality. But this year, it happened twice – on the political and economic fronts.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Meir Sheetrit tore down the curtain and began rolling up the façade that covered the scene of a collapsing economy. They both opted for a path that offers them no political dividend if they lose. Nevertheless, they had the guts to take an ornery reality by the horns.

They stood firm against phony allowances that took a large bite out of the national economy, got rid of foreign workers, and stabilized the currency. And even their failures – like the foiled attempt to consolidate local authorities – signaled that the era of illusions had ended. No more self-deceit.

This Independence Day, Netanyahu is seen as the bad guy by those who were hurt because they couldn’t cope and are now paying the heavy price of economic recovery. They are not to blame for this. After all, they were the ones led blindly by reckless finance ministers. But if Netanyahu succeeds, they, too, will thank him – for freeing them, almost against their will, from the spells of his predecessors.

Will he succeed? There’s a chance. And if he does, will he be more openhearted toward the weak, who allowed him to repair the economy at their expense and to the benefit of the rich? We can only hope.

It’s now fashionable to groan that Israeli citizens are becoming introverted. They have no interest in community life and no faith in politics. They’re retracting into their shells. Nevertheless, many of the finance minister’s victims allowed him to carry out a policy that caused them unrelenting hardship. They did not rise up in a giant wave of protest. A sign of maturity.

The political curtain was also torn down, and the rhetoric became bold. Each and every Israeli government gave the best and brightest Jews the ill-fated task of creating settlements. Right-wing ministers have known for a long time that some of the settlements were doomed, especially those in the Gaza Strip. But they chose to turn a blind eye, as if the window of opportunity hadn’t yet closed, as if it were possible to rule over another people.

Dramatic changes took place in Israel’s 56th year. The majority right wing broke its stride. Ariel Sharon turned in the direction of Shimon Peres. Ehud Olmert took a step toward Dan Meridor. One-by-one, the Likud leaders, most of them imperceptibly, aligned themselves in favor of the disengagement plan. Sharon, Olmert, Tzippi Livni, Shaul Mofaz, Limor Livnat, Sheetrit and Netanyahu the party’s leadership core.

Want to settle accounts with them? Not now. The main thing is that for whatever reasons – right or wrong – they have reached the safe haven. They now comprehend reality.

In essence, nothing has really happened. Unemployment is still rising, Gush Katif still stands. But the ability to speak truth to the Israeli public – inside, at home – is revolutionary.

This week, I hosted a television roundtable in which I let three Gaza settlers – Noga Cohen, Eran Sternberg, and Dina Avramson – spill their hearts out to Ehud Olmert.

It was, indeed, heart-rending. Cohen’s house was once hit by a mortar shell. Everyone was awakened by the blast and then went back to sleep. Even Cohen’s three children, who lost their legs in a terrorist bombing in 2002.

The 100 young people in the audience wept together with Cohen. For the first time, she sounded helpless, skeptical. She wondered whether Israel deserves to be paying the price it is. Not because of the Palestinians, but because of the government’s disengagement.

She may have even moved Olmert’s heart. But for the first time I saw a high-ranking Likud member tell a settler that she is a victim of despicable Palestinian terror. Despite the price her family paid, said Olmert, she must remember that she chose her path in life. And even though the IDF dutifully sends its soldiers to protect her, they – the ministers – must give parents good reasons to justify what their children are doing in uniform at an army base next to Netzarim.

I’d never experienced such a discussion. Until recently, that sort of talk had been taboo in the Likud. Sometimes, behind closed doors, people spoke the truth. Not in cabinet meetings, not in meetings where minutes were taken. Certainly not in public. Now, suddenly, you can argue with an anguished mother who asks a biting question: How will you, the Likud government, move a wheelchair-bound boy out of his home?

With that discussion, Israel’s ruling right wing earned its high school diploma. No more sloshing in the swamp mud of meaningless words. The disengagement and the economic recovery are still far from their goals, and what lies ahead in the meantime are blood, sweat, tears, and agonizing inner turmoil. However, the openness that is just beginning to see the light of day on Israel’s 56th Independence Day is a sign of great hope.

(Originally appeared in Ma’ariv)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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