Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Fire Next Time

The blaze is barely quelled, but the political firestorm is already spreading. I don't mean the posturing and second-guessing by ministers and various political figures; those, like Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai, cynically calling for a national inquiry into who did what over the past few days, or even into whether successive governments over the past few years have done enough to equip firefighters.

Rather, the fire is quickly becoming a metaphor for something deeper and potentially explosive in the Israeli political conversation, namely, the horribly skewed priorities of Israeli leaders pretty much since the 1967 war, but especially since the first Likud government in 1977.

The vast majority of middle class families on the coastal plain have seen the traffic and smog in greater Tel Aviv become insufferable, while commission after commission stalls out on providing a subway; the coastal highway become either stop-and-go or a death trap; the water-line in the Kinneret sink while desalination plants stall; the universities and secondary schools lose ground both in national budgets and OECD ratings; the crime rate soar; the Israel Broadcasting Authority become an embarrassment as compared with, say, the BBC; line-ups for ultra-sound machines getting longer.

In case after case, rightist coalitions have insisted the money was simply not there, and so Western standards for "quality of life" remained out of reach; the country's most responsible citizens have shrugged, more or less, and returned to work, knowing that rates of participation in Israel's workforce is actually among the lowest in OECD nations, around 57%, because of the amount of money supporting ultra-orthodox "learning."

The Carmel brush fires have suddenly given all of this frustration a powerful symbol. Just who have the governments been serving?

PERHAPS THE SIGNAL moment came on Channel Two Friday evening, when the fires were at their worst, and the newscast's most forceful commentator, Amnon Abramovich, let loose with what a great many in the audience were thinking. "If you are not a settler or a Haredi lobby," he said (I am paraphrasing),"you might as well forget getting anything from the Israeli government in recent years."

His words carried added poignancy, since Turkey--which Netanyahu's government has singled out for its putative drift into Islamosomething--had just promised to send aid; and the series of reports preceding Abramovich's commentary implied something that proved untrue but all too plausible, namely, that the fires had been arson, set by insurgent Israeli Arab youth. This was the other elephant in the room, which government after government has disregarded: the growing, dangerous alienation of a fifth of Israel's population--about which more in my next post.

All in all, the fires have awakened Israel's silent, slim majority to the paradox of their lives; that regional cooperation is not a myth, and that they are rich enough--global enough--to expect to live better than they do; yet their governments keep propping up settlement projects costing up to $20 billion over the years and engaging in diplomatic spitefulness against neighbors who criticize the very occupation they themselves have come to question.

The picture at the top is the look of yesterday's sundown, which I captured the tail end of from the Valley of Jezreel. It was, owing to the smoke, among the most beautiful the country has ever seen.  Might one hope for a metaphor in there somewhere?