Despite Everything, Israel Can Be a Wonderful Country

In the wake of the social-justice protest of last summer the public will fight, sooner or later, against corruption in government bodies and against the control of our lives by the ultra-Orthodox and by extremists.

Following the whirlwind victory in 1967, when Israel was flooded with songs about the success of the Six-Day War, author and columnist Dahn Ben Amotz proposed that we both write a lexicon of all the country's failures. I did not accept his suggestion. After the six difficult weeks of waiting before the war's outbreak, I said, and then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's stammered speech, we had the right to celebrate.

Today, too, I prefer to focus on how the country got to where it did, despite the hurdles and failures of its early years. It was not without reason that in the past two years Israel found itself in one of the top places in Gallup's polls of citizens' satisfaction with their country. Complaining seems to be a national pastime despite the amazing achievements of the country since its establishment.

Take, for example, the issue of reparations from Germany. In February 1952, the right-wing Herut party headed by Menachem Begin began a violent campaign against accepting the reparations. At a demonstration in Jerusalem's Zion Square, Begin declared it would be a fight to the finish. "Today I shall give the order for blood!" he stated. The impassioned protesters marched to the Knesset building and began hurling stones at it. (For this, Begin was forbidden from entering parliament for six months. ) Had Begin won the day, the historic meeting would not have taken place between then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, where it was decided that Germany would provide military aid to Israel for a protracted period - a decision that is still in effect today and without which the latest submarines would not be here now. Later on, Begin admitted to Ben-Gurion that he had made a mistake.

Who would have believed that that very same extremist Begin would be the one to make peace with Egypt and establish the precedent of peace in return for territory? He was also the first to pull down settlements. It is only a matter of time until we once again have a leader who is able to overcome his instincts like Begin.

We went through a difficult period during the economic austerity of the state's early years. When we see supermarkets filled with all their goodies today, only the oldest among us recall the tzena (austerity ) program that the government introduced. Then people ate powered eggs and frozen fish fillets and there was rationing. Every family received a booklet with tickets for buying rationed food and even clothes. That was the collective contribution toward absorbing new immigrants. And of course, as befits those kind of situations, the black market flourished and black humor triumphed. In view of the fact that so many people were leaving the country, there was a joke that the last to leave should switch off the light. And the political slogan of the time was "Let us live in this country."

There are things that we take for granted today. When a minister declared there would be a highway linking Haifa and Tel Aviv, people mocked him. When then-Transportation Minister Shimon Peres promised a car for every worker, people mocked him. A vision - with or without quotation marks - was routine fare for politicians. But as time went by it turned out that these visions were coming true, for better or for worse. On July 5, 1961, at 4.41 A.M. the Shavit 2 rocket was launched from Palmahim Beach. Its erratic flight was certainly not impressive and it was nicknamed an election rocket because of the proximity of the launch date to the elections. When then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir emerged from the bunker bleary-eyed, she said scornfully: "You woke me up at 3 A.M. for this?" But this little one turned into something much bigger and made us a regional power, a "proud and domineering" nation, as France's President Charles de Gaulle called the Jewish people.

At one stage, the weekly Ha'olam Hazeh published a sensational investigative report that the young guard of Labor's forerunner, Mapai, was planning a putsch to enthrone Ben-Gurion as a dictator. The report was based on a stupid idea on the part of a certain senior officer, which Ben-Gurion rejected outright. Ben-Gurion remained in power for better or for worse until he fell over the failed sabotage operation in Egypt, the so-called Lavon Affair - just as Begin, who had made peace with Egypt, fell over the Lebanon war, and Meir over the Yom Kippur War. All three because of public pressure. It was decided finally that there is no room in our country for Napoleons.

The phrase "we are all guilty," coined by former President Ephraim Katzir, no longer exists. The syndrome of placing the blame on the lowest rank also no longer exists. The political parties no longer publish newspapers and the free media fight tooth and nail to hold onto freedom of expression. They will be victorious. The Israeli public is stronger than the politicians. In the wake of the social-justice protest of last summer the public will also fight - sooner or later - against corruption in government bodies and against the control of our lives by the ultra-Orthodox and by extremists. And it will force the elected representatives of the people to do the right things.

Despite everything, this will be a great place to live. A wonderful country.