A New Leader Emerges in Israel- Colette Avital Runs for President

Colette Avital, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and member of the Labor-Meimad party, is running for President of Israel against Shimon Peres. Whether she wins or loses this election, which is scheduled to be held in the next two weeks, Ms. Avital has stepped up as one of the new leaders that Israel desperately needs.

Colette Avital is a religious pluralist who is pragmatic and very smart. I just returned from hearing her speak at the San Francisco JCC this morning at an event sponsored by the New Israel Fund.  She is not only articulate and level headed, she is willing to take public positions that may be unpopular but are in the best interests of Israel’s future.

This past June, just a few days before the Hamas abduction of Gilad Shalit, my family and I met in private at the Knesset with Colette to learn more about her political views. A native of Bucharest, Romania (where my father was born) she is a career diplomat who has served as the Israeli consul general to New York, Ambassador to Portugal, Consul in Paris, and Press Attache in Brussels.  She is also fluent in seven languages.  She is engaging and pleasant in private– serious but human.

In her remarks today, she made some very important points about current events in Israel that too many American Jews continue to ignore. I have summarized a number of the points that she made that were important to me:

• The Lebanese war of 2006 has laid bare serious Israeli social problems that have been simmering for many years. It is time for these to be addressed or Israel’s future will be seriously at risk. The social safety net broke down in the crisis and Israeli citizens did not receive the basic protection and emergency services that they should have received form the government.

• Arab citizens of Israel were, for the first time, exposed to the same missiles as the Jews. The result is that Israeli Arabs now strongly feel that the government does not provide them with equal treatment.

• If the government does not respond to this sense of injustice, Israel is at risk of seeing a new intifada from its own Arab citizens. [I have been blogging about this risk since I began pascalsview!, note my posts about the Bedouin problem and segregated education.]

• The Israeli government has neglected social issues and poverty is growing. A recently released demographic survey reveals that Israel today has the largest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized democracy.

• 25% of Israeli citizens, 1.6 million people, live BELOW the poverty line—and 58% of these are working poor.

• Ironically, globalization and Israel’s high-tech focus have led to greater inequality in the country. There are too few low-tech jobs available in Israel—some type of government sponsored planned economic acitivity needs to be started to address this problem directly.

• Israel has been too dependent on the United States’ “unimaginative foreign policy” approaches to the Middle East’s problems. This needs to change. Categorizing countries such as Syria as members of the “Axis of Evil” and refusing to deal with them is not useful.  While the majority of Israelis today is unwilling to pay the diplomatic price of peaceful coexistence with Syria (giving up the Golan Heights) the long term path to serious negotiation needs to start with dialog, not denial and exclusion.

• Further unilateral action by Israel in the region is dead, and that’s a good thing.

• Israel must engage in diplomacy with the Palestinians, with the European governments, and with the moderate Arab regimes in the region to craft a new negotiated solution that is built around the central and mutually held interest that all of these parties have in curbing extremism.

• A renewed dialog with the Palestinians, centered around the controversial but progressive Prisoners’ Document, can be established.

• Economic sanctions against Iran will fail to be enacted and will fail to be effective if enacted. Iran will develop offensive nuclear weapons (the right question is “when” not “if”). Israel should pursue a policy of engagement with Iran to achieve détente as part of a policy designed to establish regional stability BEFORE Iran obtains nuclear weapons.

• While Iran is clearly anti-Semitic, she does not believe that the Iranians are obsessed with the eradication of Israel. She believes the Iranian government today is more obsessed with using anti-Semitism to establish itself as a regional superpower and to create a base of allies aligned with Iran against its Sunni neighbors.

• Issues of pluralism and tolerance in Israel have been pushed aside in the wake of the Lebanese war of 2006. This is a mistake. We cannot ignore issues such as the fact that there is still no civil marriage in Israel and 400,000 people living in the country can’t get married because they are not recognized as Jews.

Colette Avital is no newcomer to the Israeli political scene.  Unlike other seasoned politicians in Israel, in my view, she represents exactly the kind of new thinking that the country needs.

With the shameful embarrassment of current President Moshe Katsav’s personal conduct adding another unnecessary burden to the Israeli psyche, a person of Colette Avital’s gravitas and realism is a breath of fresh air.

Whether she wins the presidency or not, I am very pleased to see her raise the bar for political leadership in Israel at this critical time. We are going to be hearing a lot more from Colette Avital!

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