Life for the Party

Israel Akheret's Fresh Vision

JAFFA—Boy, the Gang of 40 had better watch out. There are new kids on the block and they're hell-bent on taking over. Inshallah, as we say around here.

Thousands of college kids and young professionals are flocking to join a new political party called "Israel Akheret" or "A Different Israel." And what they want is indubitably different than what we've got.

Boaz Nol, 25, who flew into New York this week, is one of the founders.

"We started at the end of February with just 10 people," said Boaz. "We haven't had any media—word just got around from one friend to another. Now we have more than 10,000 members.

"Our idea is that you can't sit still in front of the TV and cry about how bad things are—you have to do something," he said. "The young generation, the future of this country, should take matters into its ownhands to create a new vision for Israel."

The movement's mere existence is surprising in an apathetic student population dedicated to "passive protest," a nice euphemism for whining.

"We have always been accused of caring only about ourselves," said Danny Frishman, a 24-year-old student in Jerusalem and one of the party's first members. "Now you see hundreds of people coming and saying they are willing to work for change. Everywhere people tell us, 'We've been waiting for something like this to happen.'

"We all share the feeling that something is going terribly wrong in this country," he said. "Not just the situation between us and the Palestinians. The problems within our own society are much bigger, but the government only worries about Arafat.

"This is not a party just for young people," he added. "Some people in their thirties or even forties are joining us. The most important thing is to have a young spirit."

Students are not getting off their tushes simply because they dream of a new, blue Israel. The economic reality in Israel today is bad enough to spark unrest on a scale of the 1969 Chicago "Days of Rage."

Tens of thousands of Israeli businesses have gone under since the current Intifada began at the end of September 2000. Unemployment has jumped from 8.8 percent to 10.6 percent—a 20 percent increase. Today 271,000 people are without work—a shocking figure in a nation of only 6 million. Tourism, a mainstay of the economy, is at its lowest point in a decade.

The shekel has depreciated nearly 17 percent, seriously cramping the style of young travelers. Taxes are high, and soar to a whopping 50 percent for those who make a decent living.

Surprisingly, the astronomical cost of Israel's war against Yasir Arafat is not the biggest bloodsucker.

There are 19 political parties in Israel today, most representing special interest groups like Russian immigrants, the settlers, the ultra-religious, etc.

With that many butts to kiss, the government survives by issuing kosher certificates to an outrageous amount of pork barrel legislation.

Every special interest group, the ultra-religious in particular, demands a disproportionate slice of the pie and holds the government hostage with constant threats to resign from the coalition.

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to form a government, every coalition member demanded ministerial-level jobs. When he ran out of titles, he began naming "ministers without portfolio," "deputy ministers," and "senior officials." So, on any given day, give or take a few stormy resignations, there are 40 people in the cabinet room. We call them the "Gang of 40."

"The government, the politicians, live on their own planet and care only about their own selfish interests," said Boaz. "We need new, clean, young blood. I tell all my friends who are leaving to live in New York, 'Stay and fight with me for a new country.' "

Israel Akheret is preparing for elections scheduled for 2003, and their platform makes good reading.

"We are very concerned and angry at how the vision of the founders of the State of Israel has been derailed," the platform says. "National priorities are determined by the intensity of sectarian pressure and not on the basis of long-range goals."

The first thing they plan to do is replace the politicians with professionals.

"We talked to business people, academics—the people who built this country and fought in all its wars," said Boaz. "We found that they think like us. So we are going to ask the best, most experienced professionals to come and do 'reserve duty' in the government for a limited term."

I immediately volunteered for a term as foreign minister, but Boaz didn't bite.

The party also promises to stop subsidizing "vast layers of society while productive citizens carry the load."

That means ending the huge subsidies paid to the settlers, to those who prefer to pad welfare rolls rather than work, and to the ultra-religious "breadwinners" who spend their days studying Torah in yeshivas. The saved funds would be channeled into infrastructure projects, creating employment.

"Employers will receive incentives to replace foreign workers with Israeli employees at a dignified salary," the platform says. "Taxes will be set at a maximum of 40 percent."

The party insists that all Israeli citizens, ultra-religious and non-Jews alike, should serve in the army or do alternate national service in schools, hospitals, and national parks.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians "constitutes a strategic and moral liability," the party says. "To end the violence and protect civilians from terror attacks, we advocate a unilateral, physical separation between the two peoples while both sides continue to strive for an equitable political resolution."

"We should withdraw from the territories," added Boaz. "We should do what is good for us. We are tired of Arafat deciding what we do. We should make a fence border until there is a new leadership there that we can talk to about peace."

And, wonder of wonders in this land of litterbugs, they are putting together a real ecology platform that includes mandatory recycling of the zillions of tons of newspaper that get tossed into the garbage every day along with cans and bottles.

Boaz's merry band has a pretty good track record. Before founding the party, they started the "Awakening" movement which battled a proposed law to exempt ultra-religious Hasidim from the military draft.

"We had a 10-day hunger strike and 200,000 people came to sign a petition supporting us," Boaz said. "The law did not pass and now there are Hasidim in special army units."

While in New York, Boaz will be looking for support from students and community leaders.

"Jewish people in the Diaspora should play a part, a real part, in creating a new vision for Israel," he said. "We want a populist government with professionals running the country . . . like in America."

Huh? That's why they need me as foreign minister.

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