Israel Cannot Afford Another Lost Decade

While our startups took off, our wallets swelled and our streets stayed safe, a national leadership that would deal with our number-one national problem in a wise, grown-up manner could not be found.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Settlers in Migron.
Settlers in Migron.Credit: Reuters
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Here’s a well-kept secret: The last decade has been a wonderful decade. Until 10 years ago, we were on the brink: Suicide bombings were killing Israel’s citizens, threatening Israel’s economy and completely disrupting Israelis’ way of life. It seemed sometimes as if blood were literally flowing in the streets and our existence was impossible.

Due to this ongoing, extreme situation, Israel was compelled to take extreme measures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that also turned the Palestinians’ lives into hell. But during 2004, the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security service and civil society finally managed to silence that huge bloody onslaught. The panic-inducing terror ebbed and then ceased. Quiet returned to our streets and our hearts.

Over the past decade, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed fewer lives than in most of the decades preceding it. As a result, the Israeli economy resumed growing and flourishing and hitting new heights. And as a result, a deep change also occurred in the West Bank. There’s no resemblance between either the Tel Aviv or the Ramallah of 2014, and Tel Aviv or Ramallah before 2004. Without even realizing it, we pulled ourselves back from the brink and succeeded in giving ourselves fat years of relative peace and absolute prosperity.

Here’s another well-kept secret: The last decade has been a terrible decade. In 2004, the number of settlers in the Palestinian territories was below 250,000. Today, they number more than 370,000. This increase, of about 50 percent, means that over the last 10 years, the settlement enterprise has become enormous and almost irreversible.

The settlers’ political power has also grown greatly. While in the middle of the last decade, it was still possible to rein them in, today they control the ruling party, pull the strings of government and treat the administration as their own property. There’s no major party standing as a buffer against them and no key leader setting limits on them.

The country that was capable of executing the disengagement from Gaza in 2004-05 has been replaced by a country that isn’t even capable of stemming the sickening hooliganism known as “price tag” attacks, Israeli shorthand for anti-Arab hate crimes. During those same years when Israel's economy was growing faster than that of any other Western country, Israel greatly complicated the situation of the occupation, which turns it into an utterly non-Western country. There’s no resemblance between the settlements in 2014 and the settlements before 2004. Without even realizing it, we’ve pushed ourselves to the brink and brought ourselves very close to a situation in which all hope is lost.

Economists term the decade after the Yom Kippur War “the lost decade.” Because of difficult global circumstances and a series of policy mistakes between 1974 and 1985, Israel’s growth was slow, inflation was rampant and we were ultimately caught in a dizzying downward spiral.

But the truth is that with regard to the overall state of the country, the actual lost decade is the one that just passed. The diagnosis was already there: The Jewish and democratic state had contracted a serious disease that was liable to become incurable. And the capability of curing it was also there.

Because of its economic and military strength, Israel was capable of defining its borders by itself. And the opportunity was certainly there: The unprecedented quiet made it possible to advance moves that wouldn’t be perceived as a retreat under fire. But neither the political leader nor the political will that would make this possible ever arose. While our startups took off, our wallets swelled and our restaurants filled, a national leadership that would deal with our number-one national problem — the one that threatens Israel’s national existence — in a wise, grown-up manner could not be found.

The lost economic decade was ended by Shimon Peres. As prime minister, he exploited the dramatic crisis to impose a brilliant rescue plan upon a weak political system. Are there a new Peres and a new Peres plan that could put a similar end to our lost diplomatic decade, somewhere in the world today? If so, they should step forward immediately. And if not, we would be wise to find them quickly. Israel cannot permit itself another lost decade.

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