The current government's achievements - in such areas as the economy, infrastructure and select security matters, including the strengthening of the National Security Staff - deserve to be recognized. But given a combination of personal and institutional factors, there is little chance the same government will be able to cope with most of the critical challenges facing Israel. Attention needs to focus, then, on the urgent tasks awaiting the next government and on efforts to speed up its formation.
Let me start with two largely ignored issues. First, Israel needs to prepare for the real possibility of a serious economic crisis. It is enough to cite the case of Ireland to demonstrate that an economy that functions well in the present does not provide any guarantees for the future. Gas discoveries, however important they may be, assuming they're put to good use, do not change this fact and must not create illusions.
This is not the time to provide the public with goodies. Investing in the economy and facilitating innovation should receive higher priority than they do now, even at the cost of current consumption.
It is also incumbent on the government to prepare for climate change. Reliable forecasts predict a continuing decline in rainfall and serious risks of rising sea levels. Hence, large investments in sea-water desalination and protection of the coast are required. The cost of sweet water will continue to increase, requiring painful adjustments in agriculture and some industries.
These challenges illustrate a demanding and neglected function of leadership, namely, the need to speak the truth to the public: Zionism and the State of Israel are heroic successes, but long-term prosperity requires continuous, strenuous efforts. The political leadership needs to explain this to the public loudly and clearly.
"Social engineering" is not a function of democratic governments. But governments are responsible for deepening the public's knowledge and understanding and preventing dangerous tendencies. The challenge goes far beyond the education system, though it, too, is in need of redesign. Israel needs to become a learning knowledge society that acts forcibly against any signs of racism, superstition or ignorance. Instituting a common core curriculum in schools nationwide and enforcing strict sanctions against expressions of racism are incumbent upon the next government, especially since this will also help reduce socio-economic disparities and integrate minorities.
These and other necessary steps will be resisted in undemocratic ways. Therefore, what is also needed is a strengthening of the culture of "statehood." This includes setting clear limits on illegal attempts by interest groups and ideological groups to impose their will on the state. Illegal settlement activities and violent opposition to the separation fence are examples of the types of activities undertaken by the "right" and the "left" that need to be stopped.
A related challenge is the need to cope with illegal immigration. It is essential that Israel be closed off nearly hermetically to illegal entry. At the same time, it is essential to enact legislation regulating citizenship, residence and granting of asylum, as part of a comprehensive demographic policy that should be carefully developed.
Two existential external challenges need to be added to this list of domestic challenges. Despite declarations to the contrary, Israel-Diaspora relations have suffered neglect at the hands of the government. Without shifts in policy that put special focus on the young generation, Israel and the Diaspora are likely to become increasingly disconnected. Shared curricula, Internet networking of the Jewish people, institutionalized consultation of Diaspora leadership on decisions made in Israel that are important for the Jewish people as a whole, and development of overall institutions and leadership for the Jewish people - these are some of the necessary innovations.
The external relations-security domain is of existential significance. Israel continues to be the strongest military power in the Middle East. But this does not fully guarantee national security in the wake of new types of threats. This challenge has received considerable attention, but even more creativity is required to overcome existing institutional inertia.
Israel's foreign-relations predicament is much worse. The country may well be approaching a slippery slope if it does not move its policies into new directions, such as toward a comprehensive Middle East settlement initiative.
A decisive and proficient prime minister willing to accept personal political risks in order to fulfill his mission can advance all these and additional goals within the constraints of the present Israeli political system. But regime reform is essential for coping well with the overall challenges sure to be posed by the 21st century. Hence, restructuring the regime and upgrading the competence of leadership are another essential undertaking awaiting the next government.
The overall conclusion is clear: The huge gap between the challenges and the actual under-performance of the current (and many past governments ) requires the urgent establishment of a new and higher-quality government. If the incumbent prime minister can do it, then fine. If not, then new elections are imperative. The risks are minimal, since it is nearly impossible to conceive of a worse government. On the other hand, there's a good chance that thanks to new elections, new and better actors will enter the political power field.
Yehezkel Dror is professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book "Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses" will be published in 2011 by Routledge.
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