When Ben-Gurion and his peers built the institutions that serve us until this very day, such as industry, agriculture, trade unions and healthcare facilities, what kept them on track was a clear vision, not a timetable.
What is the meaning of strategy in the context of nations?
Israelis often confuse strategy with tactics – for example, the Gaza pullout, which is often seen in Israel as a “strategic” move. While this was an important decision, it was not strategic. The decision did not evolve from an overall geopolitical strategy but rather reflected a classic battlefield military decision to minimize friction with the enemy. Even the term used to describe the pullout, “disengagement,” comes from military jargon.
Shin Bet head Ronen Bar speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an awards ceremony on April 4, 2023. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
A strategy is the over-arching and organizing principle that informs all the nation’s actions, plans and policies.
A true strategy must always be constructive and about progress, growth and purpose.
And true leadership is about the ability to “stay on strategy” at all costs.
The United States’ strategy, for example, is about liberty and freedom. It is articulated in the Constitution, and its popular manifestation is the American dream, a highly effective national ethos that serves as an evergreen economic growth engine.
Turning Israel into an enormous military bunker does not qualify as a strategy. Statements such as “We are doomed to live by our sword” may reflect some leader’s (morbid) state of mind but do not constitute a vision for a nation’s future. The status quo is only a theoretical paradigm invented by political theorists. There is no such thing in real life. Change is immanent and is the only constant in our lives. Therefore, a national strategy must strive to articulate a clear vision for a better future, one that goes beyond survivability.
THE MAIN reason for Israel’s current colossal crisis (and no, it is not merely constitutional, it is first and foremost social and political) is the age-old decision of its leaders to preserve and protect nationhood at the expense of developing a unifying vision for the future – beyond protection and survival – one that will provide inspiration, galvanize, and energize the nation for generations to come. As a result of this failure, we find the State of Israel on its 75th birthday an empty shell – a country without agreed borders, founded on clashing narratives of the past and heading to an uncertain future.
Israel’s tragedy, as is becoming evident these days, is the historical inability of its leaders to move beyond “statehood.” Its leaders sacrificed all possible visions for the sake of preserving statehood. In the absence of an inspiring vision, the protection of that very statehood has become the only agenda, hence the unparalleled dominance of Israel’s militarism.
The strategic vision of creating Israel as a model for the world, a “light unto the nations,” once entertained by Herzl, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, was quickly converted, due to a series of unprecedented challenges, into national militarism. And the IDF became not only the de facto melting pot but also the ultimate litmus test for successful integration into Israeli society.
Two major disruptions have occurred since then. The first was the 1967 Six Day War which created a new geopolitical reality wherein Israel became the ruler of another people. The second was the information revolution that flattened the conversation, neutralized nuance, polarized societies, and turned the world into a digitally interconnected system of tribes.
Now simplicity overrides complexity, hence the rise of populism and anti-state populism all over the world. In many ways, Israel is facing its Brexit moment, whereas the public’s craving for simple solutions overcomes factual arguments.
In engineering, structural collapses can occur with no external intervention. Usually, post-collapse, investigators look for root causes: loss of stability, eroded integrity of the structure, significant internal changes that have occurred over time, etc. In most cases, the investigators end up identifying early design deficiencies and errors that brought about the collapse. In the study of collapse – any collapse – it becomes evident that the seeds of destruction are planted in the construction process itself.
Israel’s early design deficiencies: No constitution, separation between religion and state
WHAT WERE Israel’s early design deficiencies? Most notably, two: Israel was founded with no constitution and with no separation between religion and state. These two fundamental errors are coming back to haunt us on our 75th anniversary.
In 1949, just as the war ended, Ben-Gurion had bigger fish to fry. Like many of us, he prioritized the “urgent” over the “important.” Drafting a constitution required a series of cross-over political agreements that were beyond his reach. It was Menachem Begin who urged for a constitution (1950): “The duty imposed on you is one: to enact a constitution, and then disperse and hold new elections… and none of you revealed to the people that there would be no constitution.”
“The duty imposed on you is one: to enact a constitution, and then disperse and hold new elections… and none of you revealed to the people that there would be no constitution.”
Eventually, a compromise was achieved: The Knesset would enact a series of Basic Laws that would one day be part of a full constitution. But life without a constitution, without consensus over what is sacred and unbreakable, turns into a real nightmare in a highly fragmented society such as Israel.
There are only three Western-style liberal democracies with no written constitution. The other two are Britain and New Zealand, but both are equipped with an abundance of other checks and balances. Unlike the young Israel, Britain’s legal system has been shaped throughout the ages (from the Magna Carta through a complex series of Acts of Parliament, court judgments and conventions).
Israel began its journey with a crippled system of checks and balances due to the built-in weakness of the legislative branch. The executive branch, de facto, controls the Knesset by virtue of its parliamentary majority. That leaves us with the judiciary as the only supervising mechanism over the government’s decisions. And Israel’s current Likud-led coalition would like us to believe that all our problems, from traffic jams to Palestinian terrorism, begin and end with the legal system.
It would be a mistake to view the current crisis as a debate about legal reforms or governance. When Netanyahu announced that he is about to “enter the event” (meaning, take matters into his own hands), it was not entirely clear which “event” he was referring to. It looks like the event has moved on and mushroomed into something much bigger. The notorious elites that MK David Amsalem and his Likud friends love to humiliate are now demanding a clear vision and strategy instead of the usual fear-based terminology about threats, enemies and the protection of “life itself.”
Netanyahu, inadvertently, triggered the infamous Israeli-sucker phobia. This may be his biggest contribution to Israel’s future. Israelis do not like to be taken for a ride and, currently, many of them feel abused by sectors that have placed themselves before and above the well-being of the nation: the ultra-Orthodox (that never embraced Zionism) and the messianic nationalists (who see the State of Israel only as an instrument in the fulfillment of their messianic prophecy). Thanks to their uncontrolled enthusiasm to leverage their electoral advantage into a quick and aggressive political grab, the “legal event” turned into a massive tectonic shift.
AS A RESULT of the jaw-dropping miscalculations of this Likud-led coalition, a new and powerful camp was created: the pro-democracy camp. This camp will set the tone for years to come. Ever since former prime minister Ehud Barak single-handedly decimated the territorial compromise camp, once the country’s most prominent political camp, Israel’s conservatives have not really faced any serious opposition.
Barak’s success in proving there is no partner for peace left his camp with no real agenda and is the main reason for the Netanyahu-led Likud to have been able to form coalition after coalition, despite the fact that it presented no clear vision for the future.
Indeed, the political rhetoric of the past 20 years has been predominantly rooted in the past with frequent references to the Holocaust, led by coalitions of convenience wherein the Likud party, the historic magnate for those who feel disenfranchised, merely served as the platform upon which sectoral parties fulfilled their budgetary fantasies.
Israel’s serving elites, who quietly carried the burden of growth, defense, taxation and innovation, have been passive for the most part, since they believed in the viability of Israel’s democracy. But that’s all over now.
The serving elite will continue to serve, but only on its own terms, thus leaving the populists largely helpless. They may have the votes, but can they lead? Can you really imagine Amsalem, Miri Regev, Galit Distal Atbaryan and their Likud buddies leading Israel to a glorious future? How, and with whom, exactly? With Deri’s troops? To unseat the current serving elites, one must present an alternative.
In the eyes of the pro-democracy camp, the proposed legal reforms are yesterday’s news. Their agenda is much wider and deeper: instating a constitution; separation between religion and state; equal participation; and, above all, creating a vision for the future.
And no, further fortification of our collective military bunker isn’t satisfactory. They demand a vision beyond security. Yes, Israel is facing major military challenges, but it also has all the necessary tools to deal with them effectively. Now is the time to take care of life itself: healthcare, infrastructure, education, cost of living, etc. – all under the conceptual umbrella of equal participation, rights and freedom.
Israel is, indeed, a miracle. What makes Israel such a great miracle is the extraordinary achievements of its collective of ordinary people. The story has always been about the Israeli people and not their political leadership, which often failed them.
These achievements are due to the ongoing refusal of Israelis, as a collective, to accept limitations.
That effort required tremendous sacrifice.
Israel’s secret sauce has always been its ability to embrace creativity, allow a free flow of ideas and debate, and belief in science and knowledge.
Politicians who will try to curb these freedoms and diminish Israel’s sacred democratic institutions in the name of some narrow sectoral or personal interests, will not only be forcefully confronted by the new pro-democracy political camp but will also be severely punished by history.
What vision does Israel need?
WHAT VISION is needed? No need for deep digging. Herzl already provided the main pillars of the vision: equality, freedom, inclusion and knowledge. In his vision, the future Jewish state was to become a bastion of boundless creativity and progress. How can one win the consent of Israel’s unrelenting sectors (the ultra-Orthodox, the theocratists and the Arabs) to support these values while they truly feel excluded? Only by demonstrating what’s in it for them. In diplomacy, these are called win-win situations.
Days of Future Passed is a classic album by legendary British progressive rock band The Moody Blues. It was a groundbreaking album combining rock with classical music. It is about one day in a life, and its title refers to broken promises and missed opportunities (by the way, its final song, “Nights in White Satin,” which was initially ridiculed for its ambiguous lyrics, is now considered one of the greatest songs ever written).
Symbolically, the album was released in 1967, the year of the “big disruption” to Herzl’s vision. Israel’s current leadership is being accused of robbing the people of their future by diverting from the original promise of our founding fathers. Rather than being preoccupied with the future, they keep obsessing about past injustices.
It is not too late to deliver on Herzl’s original promise, go back to fundamentals and turn Israel into a light unto the nations. The current crisis represents a rare opportunity to recalibrate the course, articulate a unifying vision, and ensure that the days of the future have not yet passed.
The writer, is a former diplomat, university lecturer and consultant to global companies. He was Israel’s longest-serving consul-general in New York (2010-2016).