The Jerusalem Post, Nov 6, 2002


By Michael Freund

(The writer served as deputy director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.)


Israel's Right, it would seem, should be just about preparing to declare victory.

Less than a decade after the signing of Oslo, the agreement has collapsed just as the Right said it would. Israel's great ideological debate of the 1990s - whether and how to deal with Yasser Arafat as the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism - has been decided, as history bears out the Right's thesis that one cannot negotiate with terror.

The American government, which backed and promoted Oslo for so many years, has never been more understanding of Israel's desire to abandon the accords, thanks to its systematic breach by the Palestinians. The same goes for American Jewry, most of which now accepts the necessity of moving beyond the failed peace.

The Left, by contrast, has never looked so feeble, as it pays the price for Oslo's demise, splintering apart amid mutual recriminations and name-calling. And with the Labor Party back in opposition, where it looks doomed to spending a lengthy spell, the Right would appear to be precisely where it wants to be - poised to assume sole leadership of the country for years to come.

And therein lies the problem. For, as much as Israel's Right has been vocal about Oslo, it has been equally silent about various other issues of national concern.

Indeed, the Right's greatest failing is that it has been consumed by its singular success. In the process, it has done little to forge a comprehensive philosophical framework beyond the issue of territory. It has focused so intently on the issue of land that it has neglected to grapple with all of the various other odds and ends of running a country.

To fully appreciate this, take a look at America, where the divide between Left and Right covers a wide range of issues. From the size of government, to its role in the life of the individual, to judicial activism to abortion, there is a lively and vigorous debate at work, one in which the Right offers the public a competing viewpoint on nearly every policy question that touches their day-to-day lives.

Punchy periodicals such as National Review, the Weekly Standard and Commentary all fuel an intellectual conservative atmosphere that is both animated and wide- ranging. They debate Iraq and foreign policy, but they also look at school vouchers, the tax burden, monetary policy, and other, seemingly more mundane, issues too.

Compare this situation with that of Israel, where the intellectual vacuum is as gaping as it is profound. There is no right-wing cultural conversation taking place, one that seeks to identify and solve the myriad of social and economic problems confronting the country. There is no searing indictment being made of the country's bloated public sector, no stinging call for a reduction in taxes, and no insistent demand for less government, rather than more.

Israel's Right has failed because it has not waged an overarching war of ideas against the Left, which is arguably just as crucial to the country's future as the war of the hilltops now being fought in Judea and Samaria. It has all but abandoned the public debate, directing the bulk of its energies in one direction to the detriment of all others.

To be fair, Israelis face the type of existential questions that perhaps leave little room for the luxury of debating the finer points of fiscal prudence.

Nevertheless, that has not stopped the Left from developing a well-honed intellectual infrastructure of its own, so there is little reason why Israel's right-wing cannot do the same.

Pioneering efforts in this regard have been undertaken by think-tanks such as the Shalem Center, whose intellectual journal Azure is second to none.

But until there exists a broader array of such groups, from a right-wing B'tselem to a conservative Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Left will continue to dominate the popular discourse.

Consequently, even when Israel's Right takes power, it does not know how to put that power to use, for the simple reason that its policy horizons are so utterly narrow and incomplete.

In this respect, the leaders of the Right would do well to recall the example of one of the most influential conservative American leaders of the past century - Ronald Reagan. As former White House senior domestic policy analyst Dinesh D'Souza notes in his new book Letters to a Young Conservative, Reagan was a successful president because "he had a Euclidean certainty about what he believed and where he wanted to take the country."

"Reagan," D'Souza adds, "was a determined man who was making some big and important claims. [he] wanted to halt the growth of the welfare state at home, and he wanted to dismantle the Soviet empire abroad. These were enormously ambitious goals."

And they were goals which he accomplished, because Reagan knew where he was headed and what he hoped to achieve.

To emulate that success, Israel's Right will have to do more than just assume power. It must first decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

The rest will surely follow.

(c) The Jerusalem Post

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