Taking Stock / Behind the Smoke Screen

Eyal Warshavsky

All week the world's press and news websites have been running stories about the flotilla fiasco, in which nine civilians were killed and many more injured when Israel Navy commandos battled activists sailing to Gaza. Mission failure, public relations fiasco, humanitarian debacle, tactical or strategic flop - to each his own take on the affair, depending mainly on one's political bent. But almost all, left and right, agreed that what happened would cause terrible damage to Israel's image.

Yet the worst fallout from the flotilla, and from all the unending military actions, goes unsaid. Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other silent killers, the true social and economic disease that is killing Israel will continue to gnaw away inside it, slowly, methodically and inexorably.

It would appear that Israel only loses from miserable events like raids on aid convoys. But cynics know that there are winners, too.

Operations such as the raid on the Gaza-bound boats - termed either Operation Sea Breeze or Operation Sky Winds in English, by various sources - can fill the Israeli public space for years, leaving little room for other issues. With such a thick and impenetrable smoke screen blanketing the nation and smothering the media debate, the winners are the powerful forces that get along beautifully with the status quo, the people who are best served by the prevailing political and economic systems.

That pea-soup-thick smoke screen of security sitting over Israel is what enables the unholy alliance of big money and government - who can tell the difference between them at this stage? - to continue to rob Israel of it future. That smoke screen is what enables the government to continue to focus on its own short-term survival and engage in empty shows of action, in headlines utterly devoid of meaning, in hollow slogans, instead of tackling genuine issues and formulating long-term plans.

The security smoke screen enables Israel's politicians to busily chew the chaff while ignoring the rotting wheat. It is what enables the powerful pressure groups and narrow-interest cadres - labor unions on one hand and oligarchs on the other - to determine Israel's social and economic policies.

Winds of war and hot air

With the public space perennially buffeted by the winds of war and the hot air of the ceaseless natter of politicians about the invisible "political process," those powers are free to merrily continue robbing our future.

They can forgo discussing the abhorrent social gaps that have widened in the past 20 years.

They can avoid discussing the erosion of values and the spread of corruption.

They can ignore the deterioration of Israeli education. They can pretend not to see the true face of the crony capitalism that is ravaging everything good in the economy, destroying the labor market, perpetuating mediocrity, causing the best minds to flee the country and shackling productivity.

As Sky Winds roar and batter the public and media debate, the prime minister, cabinet members and top officials need not address the real issues that will determine our quality of life 10 or 20 years from now. With the majority firmly in place, head rammed into the sand, assuring themselves and their friends that Israel is terrific and that everything's peachy, nobody's asking questions. An entire nation is enthralled in narcissism - "This is me and I'm great. Need proof? It's me!"

If, however, you have a taste for truth, take a look at Prof. Dan Ben-David's excellent State of the Nation Report, which we first wrote about one month ago.

Extensive sections of the report dwell on the miserable results of Israel's education system, from kindergarten to university. In all the main international tests Israelis scored significantly lower than their peers in other members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which we joined just a month ago to great fanfare (in the local media ).

How to read the table

You look at the table pictured to the right, and your first reaction is probably How do I read this? Let's sum it up: With the exception of Italy's performance in the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study ) in 2003, Israel did worse than all of the other 25 countries in the OECD.

"It's all the fault of the Haredim," you may be thinking. "If they were removed from the result we'd look great." Not so, dear reader. The ultra-Orthodox educational institutions were not part of the survey: They don't teach the subjects covered in the tests.

OK, you may be thinking, the Arabs must be to blame. It is unthinkable that Israel, with the largest concentration of Jews in the world, is faltering in education. Look at all our Nobel prizes, the way that Jews lead around the world - on Wall Street, in high tech, advertising, the media! All we need is to compare our best and brightest with their peers abroad, and surely we will find there is no reason to worry.

But there is. Ben-David compared the performance of Israel's best students with their peers in the OECD, looking at the top 5% in each country. It turns out that the achievements of Israel's top 5% are below the average of their peers in the OECD nations in each of the tests conducted in the past decade, with the exception of Italy.

We could shrug it off and continue to claim that Israelis are the most creative people in the world, that we think outside the box, that our high-tech sector has birthed world-changing innovations, and that 62 years after its establishment Israel is one of the greatest economic success stories in modern history.

But Israel's past successes are largely irrelevant to its future, 10 or 20 years down the line. Our achievements - Nobel prizes, academic recognition, high tech - were based on the education system of 20 or 30 years ago, on people who grew up with a different culture and different values, and on the great (and nonrecurring ) wave of immigration from Russia.

Most important, the competitive environment in which Israel operates has changed dramatically in the past decade. While Israeli education has fallen behind its peers abroad and the country's infrastructure continues to lag behind most of the West, India and China are churning out talented engineers by the hundreds of thousands every year.

Yes, there are countries with more corruption and wider social gaps, with even worse schools, but none of them faces the existential challenges that Israel does. We are not Greece, Spain or Italy. If Israel's economy fails to star in the next 20 years we will become vulnerable.

Israel's responsible budgetary policies in recent years, together with a high level of household savings, brought us to 2010 with good liquidity by international standards. A healthy company must have a healthy balance sheet, but it's no guarantee of future wellness. To flourish, a company must be competitive. It must have the best people. Its employees must have good living conditions and it has to have superior management, cohesion and organizational culture.

In the company called Israel, all these have been eroding.

We may be doomed to live shrouded by the smoke screen and buffeted by the winds of war and the hot air that serve the powers that be so beautifully. Yet we can still focus on the main thing, the real goals that will shape Israel 20 years from now: improving economic policy, education, public-sector management and governance; integrating Haredim and Arabs into the workforce and improving the situation of the most disadvantaged Israelis.

The solutions aren't that difficult. We have the way, the means, what we need is the will, a sense of urgency on the part of the public and the country's leaders. What we need are long-term strategic plans.

Look at your children, their teachers and the educational system. Look at their environment, the values to which they are exposed.

Ask yourself this: Do you want Israel's leaders to focus on their rhetoric of military might, or on the issues and long-term plans that will determine how your children will live in the future?