Over the course of 73 years, Israel has accomplished far more than even its most optimistic founders could have dreamed. In 1948, we had 800,000 citizens; today, there are well over nine million Israelis, comprising about half of the world’s Jewish population. Out of the ashes of the Shoah, Israel has nourished the revival of Jewish culture and, through the restoration of the Hebrew language, has made its vast library accessible to everyone.
From an economic perspective, Israel, which started with nothing and depended on international aid, now has a standard of living higher than respectable by world standards, with hi-tech leading the way. Israel has achieved all of this and more, while also fighting wars designed to wipe us off the map as well as unending terror attacks and cynical boycotts portraying Israeli soldiers as war criminals. Overcoming these challenges gives us good reason to celebrate.
But this is also an appropriate time to look forward and focus on some concrete goals for our 74th year. First and foremost, we need a functioning government. Four elections during a two year period have ended in gridlock, including the latest round a few weeks ago. Our dysfunctional electoral system reinforces and amplifies the differences that mark Israeli society, rather than highlighting all of the issues that unite us.
Like the old process of electing representatives from different communities around the world to the Zionist congresses 120 years ago, Israelis still vote for tribal parties instead of national leaders. In many cases, the substantive differences are very minor, but the system rewards division rather than unity. If, by this time next year, we can figure out a better political structure that will still reflect the different sectors that make up Israeli society but also provide stability, dayenu — it will have been enough.
Then there is a leadership problem to be addressed. Benjamin Netanyahu has held the position of prime minister since 2009 (after an earlier stint between 1996 and 1999) and, to about half of the Israeli public, is still considered the best option. He is credited with piloting Israel through the coronavirus pandemic and ensuring that Israel could vaccinate everybody very quickly; his supporters are convinced that his leadership is necessary in dealing with the Iranian threat.
But for the other half of the electorate, 12 years is enough (or more than enough). They hold Netanyahu responsible for the polarization, blame him and his remaining allies for the failures in governance and point to the corruption trial as reason enough to bring his era to a close. In the past two years, different candidates have presented themselves, gained some support and then faded — perhaps someone new and qualified will emerge before our 74th anniversary.
Looking beyond our borders, the last year has brought important new openings in the Middle East under the flag of the Abraham Accords. Instead of the isolation that characterized the Jewish state during its first three decades, we now have peace and “normalization” agreements with Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Extensive cooperation has replaced blind hostility (earlier this week, an agreement was signed for extending Israel’s diabetes support program to citizens of the UAE), setting an example for the rest of the Arab world, including the Palestinians.
The last year has brought important new openings in the Middle East under the flag of the Abraham Accords.
The unresolved conflict with the Palestinians and the threat from the Iranian regime remain the two biggest external challenges facing Israel. Both require close cooperation with the United States, but the opening moves from the Biden administration have not been promising. History shows that the unconditional resumption of U.S, funding for the Palestinians and UNRWA (the corruption-riven UN framework created in 1949 that will spend $1.4 billion this year to artificially maintain the refugee status of millions of Palestinians) will reinforce rejectionism.
On Iran, it is difficult to be optimistic that the negotiations on Tehran’s illicit nuclear program in exchange for an end to economic sanctions will end with better terms than were accepted by Obama in 2015. But perhaps some lessons have been learned in Washington and Jerusalem, and with the cooperation of the Gulf states threatened by Iran (including, at least tacitly, Saudi Arabia), Israel’s technological and strategic advantages will force Iran to curb its aggressive strategy.
For these reasons, and despite the challenges, Israelis can be proud of their accomplishments and celebrate 73 years of independence and freedom.
Gerald Steinberg is professor emeritus of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Institute for NGO Research, in Jerusalem