Yesterday afternoon Prime Minister Ariel Sharon enjoyed a brief respite: On the memorial day for Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Sharon was granted an honorary doctorate by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva.
The ceremony was accompanied by some slight dissonance produced by the protest of a number of senior professors on the university's faculty, who argued that BGU's president, Professor Avishay Braverman, had erred in deciding to confer the honorary degree on an individual whose career has been controversial and has been studded with various political, military and civilian embroilments. However, it seems that, in Braverman's view at least, he has scored a major public relations and political coup.
Braverman's political flexibility is amazing. It is one thing to accept the decision of the voters and to extend to Sharon all the dignity that every prime minister is entitled to enjoy. It is quite another thing to push yourself to the head of the line of those granting Sharon various honors.
It is one thing to see rightists, advocates of the Greater Israel concept or adherents of the Ger Hasidic sect praising Sharon to the skies for his use of the demand for seven days of quiet to hold up the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians or for his delivering a bizarre speech on economic issues that contained the declaration of a "state of national emergency."
It is quite another thing to see an honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree being bestowed upon the head of a clearly right-wing government by the president of an Israeli university who presents on television talk shows and at conferences a leftist socio-economic platform.
In BGU's official publication, Sharon is described as a "military commander whose name is linked with daring and extraordinary military operations," as a "resident of the Negev who has done a great deal to advance that region," and as a person who has "devoted most of his life to the security and development of this country." The unnecessary prefabricated structures of 1991, his destructive decisions regarding the rezoning of agricultural lands for real estate projects, and the sweeping construction and road-building activities in the Jewish settlements in the territories, not to mention Lebanon and the Kahan Commission, are not even alluded to in this publication.
Braverman's decision faithfully reflects the lack of backbone of many people like him, people who boast of their enlightened leftist outlook but who are prepared to whitewash the policies of any and every government, so long as they, the supposed leftists, continue to have access to the gravy. How is Braverman any different from the industrialists and high-profile financiers, who were once such close friends of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who talked in such lofty terms about peace and about a new agenda of social priorities and who then rushed off to make a pilgrimage to Sharon's ranch the moment he was elected prime minister?
Over the past few years, nearly everyone in the political spectrum - whether hawk or dove - has been singing a single conservative socio-economic tune: policies of restraint, no governmental intervention in the economy, and maintenance of the limits of the state budget. The trauma of the inflation of the 1980s has stunned all the nation's economists to such an extent that they are totally ignoring Israel's unemployment problem, which is a plague that is just as destructive to the economy and to society as inflation, if not more so. (According to many pundits, the danger of inflation is considerably diminished today in any case.)
Nonetheless, at the same university that Braverman heads, other voices can be heard. At a meeting of Mehuyavut (Commitment), an organization committed to the causes of peace and social justice, professor Aryeh Arnon of BGU's economics department delivered a speech in which he provided an explanation why a dovish orientation and social equality are closely interlinked.
In addition to showing why every delay in the attainment of a peace treaty simply brings Israel's economy and society that much closer to disaster, Arnon spoke about the "invisible hand" policy of the government, which issues proclamations about its refusal to intervene in the economy but which is in fact intervening in every sphere of the economy, including the privatization process. Arnon proposed a shift to a "visible hand" policy and for a return to Keynesian economics, which criticized the failure of the macro-economic market and which understood that the system simply does not work when the market's forces are left to their own devices.
Mehuyavut has already proposed this year an alternative to the government's economic policies - not the confused ones presented by Sharon, but rather the clearcut ones of former Bank of Israel governor professor Jacob Frenkel, which is what has been determining the government's economic path over the past few years. Among Mehuyavut's proposals are the following: a national unemployment rate target of 5 percent of the work force; the adoption of policies that are suited for dealing with a recession and which will be binding on both the Finance Ministry's budgets division and the Bank of Israel; the lowering of the prime interest rate; an amendment of the law governing the reduction of the state budget deficit; repeal of the exemption from payment of a parallel tax that is granted to employers, and the transfer of the money to support the unemployed; a change in the occupational training system and an overall reform of the employment service; a drastic cut in the sweeping benefits enjoyed by settlers; the imposition of a special tax on the upper two deciles of society within the context of a tax reform program; the creation of a ceiling for health insurance and the transfer of the money to help fund public transportation systems; and more.
One can, of course, argue the logic of all these proposals. Nonetheless, they should be the subject of a profound discussion, at least in the university setting. It is highly regrettable that, during the present period - which is characterized by a deep recession and by a spiraling unemployment rate and in which the government is prioritizing the expansion of settlement infrastructures over every other item on the national agenda - BGU's president should indicate that, instead of debating and crystalizing an independent socioeconomic stance and criticizing the government's performance, he has a preference for petty politicking simply for the sake of prestige.
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