Voting with closed minds and memories

Memory is a fluid commodity in Israel.  We remember distinctly God’s gift of the land to the Jews, but, faced with refugees from Africa, we forget that we, too, were refugees not too long ago.

We remember the despair of living under foreign rulers, but we are blind to our own rule over another people, which is happening now and under our noses.

It’s a counter-intuitive memory, which seeps into the spaces where myth and manufactured history already exist but it unable to penetrate the vacuums of deliberate forgetfulness and denial. A very convenient and comforting memory.

Nevertheless, some things are worth remembering. For instance, the fact that the Soviet Union did not collapse in 1991 because of a nuclear strike on the country or invasion by external enemies. With Israel gearing up for an election campaign that, like its predecessors, is virtually certain to be dominated by the stark issue of national security, it’s worth examining the issue in a wider, historical context.

The Soviet Union imploded from within because it was bankrupt – financially, politically, socially, ideologically and creatively bankrupt. Rigid thinking, dedication to outdated Bolshevik myths, decades of oppressive rule over the constituent republics of the USSR, as well as the countries of Eastern Union, political repression and social privation were all important factors in the dissolution of the empire.

What finally did the Soviet Union in was runaway defense spending. Ronald Reagan forced the already-tottering empire into a Star Wars-driven arms race, which it was unable to sustain, yet from which is was ideologically incapable of opting out. The attempts to keep up with its strategic obligations bled the USSR white and aggravated the already-prevalent political, national and social stresses, leading to eventual collapse.

All that happened only 20 years ago and it has lessons for us today. A strong military is not a stand-alone guarantor of national security. A strong military without a strong economy and a strong nation behind it is, at best, a waste of money and, at worst, a destabilizing factor that can send any country into a tailspin. True national security requires balanced spending.

The Israeli defense budget is a monster that devours everything in its path. The part of it that is visible is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are budgetary allocations amounting to many billions of shekels that are never revealed – not even to the members of the Knesset who are meant to oversee it. The defense establishment essentially draws up its own budget and the finance ministry rubber-stamps it.

Even when so-called cuts are implemented, they invariably fall on future items that have not yet been budgeted – military wish lists, if you will. And even those are typically reinstated within a year or two. The actual budget never gets cut; it just keeps on growing.

Together, the defense budget and the huge sums allocated to the maintenance and intensification of the occupation, only part of which come from the defense budget, impose a crippling burden on the society as a whole. Education, public health, welfare and all the other necessary components of a healthy and strong society have been underfunded for decades. These are not peripheral to national security. They are the essence of the nation that the army is supposed to secure.

It’s unlikely that Israel will understand this lesson from history before the upcoming election. Israel is a country of security addicts and our drug is the shared security mentality. We are a militaristic society, not in the sense of parades, ceremonies and so on – those have actually lessened over time – but in the sense of having a common consciousness that is shaped by military thinking. Our leading thinkers today are not philosophers or even rabbis – they’re generals.

There’s a real problem with that. Generals, however smart they are and whatever their academic achievements, are not free and independent thinkers. They develop in an environment that fosters discipline and obedience, not independent thought; an environment that, by its very nature, channels creativity in specific and very limited ways. A creative military mind is not necessarily a creative civilian mind. In fact, that is very rarely the case.

The result is a narrow-minded national security concept that is entirely focused on armed threats and military solutions; a concept that has little tolerance for other, non-military factors. A case in point is the Iranian nuclear program and the western attempts to combat it. Most Israelis simply can’t get their heads around sanctions; that’s not how we think. Why not simply bomb the bastards and be done with it, instead of trying to cripple their economy?

Our military-centric thinking may satisfy our bloodlust, but it does not chime with the way things work. The world is a more complex place than one governed solely by force of arms. Conquering and being conquered is not the only reason for the appearance and disappearance of nations, despite our school-boy reading of history.

Social and economic policies matter. When mismanaged, they can destroy a country just as surely as tanks and missiles. It is one of the great fallacies of Israeli thinking that only a strong army and strategic superiority can keep us strong. As the example of the Soviet Union shows only too clearly, the quest for strategic superiority can also be the kiss of death.

Israel needs to deal with the problems that sap its strength. Those are, first and foremost, the debilitating conflict with the Palestinians, a failed political system and social inequality. To deal with these, it will need to reorder its priorities. Investment will have to be transferred from ensuring military strength to building social strength. A country that is internally weak can never be militarily strong indefinitely. A structure that is imbalanced eventually falls over.

Israel will not survive as a fortress state. Unfortunately, that logic is not likely to get an airing during the election campaign. Israelis vote with their memories, not their logic. And those memories are as obtuse as the defense budget.