``Eureka!" I shouted. Tucked away in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency daily newsletter, I found a clue to one of the enduring mysteries of Israeli life: the refusal to confront major crises before they become full-fledged emergencies.
According to the JTA, Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs are finding that to rake in the megabucks they have to move their businesses to America, where the investment dollars are. (This was before the Nasdaq went into a nosedive.) Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps our leaders show so little concern about where we will find water to drink or means of transport because they expect their children to join the flourishing Israeli diaspora in New York, or Los Angeles, or Silicon Valleys.
Others will prefer more prosaic explanations, pointing to the security situation as the reason that our politicians have little time for anything else. Yet even if they are right, the obsession with security to the exclusion of all else is symptomatic of a deeper national problem: a fixation on the present and loss of optimism about the future.
Even a short survey of the non-military problems confronting Israel reveals a nation of ostriches hiding our heads in the sand. Asked to explain how the present water situation developed, former Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir replied, ``How do you explain the fact that mass transportation has never developed in this country, or that the public health system is collapsing . . .? It’s the same thing."
In most countries, for instance, forecasts of no water to drink by the summer would commandeer banner headlines. Not in Israel.
Water experts are projecting a 390 cubic meter deficit for the present year, even after a 50% cut in the agriculture ration from last year. Water prices to private consumers are predicted to rise by 50% this year, and a lack of drinking water in many areas this summer is being forecast.
The present situation did not develop overnight. Over a decade ago, the state comptroller already slammed 25 years of mismanagement for endangering the water supply and quality. The response was another 10 years of continued mismanagement. This past December, Uri Saguy, the chairman of Mekorot, the national water carrier, complained, ``The government will only do something when the tap runs dry."
The approach to the water crisis typifies that to other areas of national priority. Israel today has the most congested roads in the world, double the average number of cars per mile of paved road of the rest of the Western world. And that is despite the fact that rates of car ownership are only half those of other industrialized nations. Yet almost nothing has been done to develop mass transportation within urban areas or between them. The lack of mass transportation exacerbates the expanding social gaps and cuts off many dwellers on the periphery and in development towns from the economic development at the center of the country.
The educational system is another disaster area to which insufficient attention has been paid. Israel’s principal export today is brainpower. Yet Israeli schoolchildren rank only 28 out of 38 advanced nations on standardized mathematical tests. Verbal and physical violence have turned many schools into blackboard jungles for students and teachers alike.
The good news is that tackling many of our most pressing problems dovetails neatly with the goals of the national unity government that Prime Minister Sharon has assembled. Issues of water, transportation, and education affect the entire populace. And many aspects of the problem are technocratic rather than ideological in nature.
To be sure, educational policy will always be highly charged ideologically – e.g., new Education Minister Limor Livnat’s focus on reinstilling Zionist and Jewish values in the system. Yet figuring out why Yossi can’t do algebra and keeping knives and guns off the playgrounds are issues that transcend ideology. Even water policy is not without its ideological dimension. We have to decide, for instance, whether we as a nation wish to provide the agricultural sector with enormous discounts on water because of agriculture’s close association with the Jewish return to the Land. But the main question – What is the quickest, cheapest, and most efficient way to construct desalinization plants? – cuts across traditional ideological lines.
Sharon has made clear that he views restoring Israelis’ belief in themselves and confidence about the future as a top priority. Squarely facing the crises in water, education, and mass transportation would be an excellent place to start. Doing so would go a long way to providing Israel’s citizens once again with the sense that we have a future.