The State of Israel – 75 Years, and What Next?

The time has come to build our state rather than continuing to invest our economic and human resources in a land that is not ours, from which we will have to withdraw sooner or later – preferably sooner.

Few nations marking their 75th year would be able to bask in such accomplishments as ours.

The State of Israel’s existence is a miracle for which no precedent or parallel exists in human history. Seventy-five years ago, fewer than 700 thousand Jews lived here. Now, in its 75th year of statehood, Israel is home to more than 7 million Jews. I place special emphasis on the number of Jews residing here, as the non-Jewish population, which is an inseparable part of the state, did not leave their homes in another country of to live here. The Arab and Druze populations, which have increased greatly since the founding of the state, have expanded through natural growth. They have lived here and been an integral part of this land for centuries. The Jewish population came here from all corners of the earth; a large majority arrived due to oppression in their countries of origin. Many came from Europe as refugees from the Holocaust, while others came as refugees fleeing Muslim Arab countries due to the persecution they suffered in the wake of the Jewish-Arab wars over Eretz Israel. Some came from countries that had once been part of the Communist bloc that was hostile to Israel; when the Soviet Union disintegrated, they decided to emigrate to the land that they could most naturally call home. Some arrived in Israel by choice, with no special factors keeping them from remaining where they were – in the Americas, Western Europe, Asia, Australia or Africa.

The fact that the Jews returned to a land to which they had always felt deeply attached is a miracle. The revival of the Hebrew tongue, and its transformation into Israel’s spoken, written, and creative language, is an even greater miracle, unparalleled in human history. The language spoken by the inhabitants of this land three thousand and more years ago, the language in which the Bible was written, is now once again in day-to-day use by millions of people.

And I’ve still written nothing about the marvelous ingathering of exiles that took place here. The Jews of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Slovakia, and England came here and joined Jews who arrived from Ethiopia, Argentina, Iraq, Morocco and Egypt, as well as from South Africa and Australia and dozens of other countries. They came from different social backgrounds, spoke different languages, were accustomed to different ways of life, and yet they united to form one society that speaks the language of this land.

Within a relatively short amount of time Israel went from being a poor country under constant security threat, faced with hatred and hostility on all sides, lacking the natural resources necessary for growth, development, and economic prosperity, to being a wealthy country able to defend itself from those seeking to harm it; it is economically successful and stable, with educational institutions and research centers known worldwide for their accomplishments – institutions that have become shining examples and objects of admiration and, sometimes, envy, on the part of many other nations.

Were it somehow possible to go backward in time, even for a moment, we could hold our heads high and thank the nation’s founders and the generations of fighters who devoted themselves to its defense and survival, as well as the makers, artists, teachers, scientists and physicians who helped produce this magnificent creation called Israel; a country that we, even in times of trouble or lack of assurance regarding its economic and defensive stability, have never stopped loving or feeling lucky to live in – a country that is not a distant dream but rather an everyday reality, a source of security and pride.

And yet issues have come up of late that raise doubts, the likes of which we have not been troubled by since the founding of the state. Will we be privileged to celebrate our centennial of independence? Is this miraculous phenomenon of return to the land, of the ancient tongue being revived, of deserts being made to bloom and flourish, merely a brief chapter in the history of a people that successfully preserved its heritage but never displayed sufficient restraint, patience, tenacity, perseverance, determination, or vision in the management of its sovereign state?

This is not an offhand question. It reflects a feeling shared by a great many sons and daughters of this land, lovers of the land who also dwell in it, but also by friends of the country who observe it from the outside, wondering what exactly is impairing its judgment and wisdom and carving open ever-widening fractures between the different sectors of Israeli society.

The doubts arising with regard to the country’s future are not a sudden shock that may be expected to quickly wear off. They reflect real fear, stemming from the realization that, despite all of our wonderful achievements, we are failing to intelligently and responsibly address problems that could undermine the stability of life here, our security, and perhaps even our future.

Chief among these problems is Israel’s refusal to discuss a solution to the historical conflict between it and the Palestinian people. Since the state’s founding, its prime ministers have been proclaiming the Jewish people’s desire for peace with all our enemies. We suffered multiple wars, large numbers of casualties, repeated crises and large-scale fear before we managed to achieve peace agreements with two of our greatest enemies, Egypt and the Kingdom of Jordan. In recent years we’ve expanded the circle of peace to include additional countries – the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. The Palestinian people, with whom we are in direct and immediate conflict, have not been on Israel’s agenda for over a decade. Isn’t it time to prepare for a possible re-opening of dialogue with the aim of reaching a peace agreement, reconciliation and mutual respect between us and our Palestinian neighbors?

Some will argue that the Palestinians, like Arab countries in the past, refuse to accept our existence and persist in terrorist activity against our citizens. The truth is that Israel, the country now celebrating its 75th year of independence, doesn’t want peace. The vision of peace has disappeared from view. A country whose ministers and advisors engage daily in incitement against Arabs doesn’t want to make peace with them; a country whose ministers and advisors aid and abet rioters in the West Bank – rioters who harass the local Palestinians almost every day and destroy their vineyards and olive groves – doesn’t want peace; a country whose ministers and advisors talk openly about imposing the death penalty on those who are “disloyal” to the state, or expelling them from the territories we control, doesn’t want peace. Instead of putting its heart and soul into the peace effort, the state continues to exploit, oppress, and humiliate those subject to its authority.

This situation has prevailed for quite a few years. It is impossible to justify or to obscure. The only possible conclusion is that, after 75 years of statehood, we prefer the vision of Greater Israel to the desire, the aspiration, and the hope of establishing peaceful and neighborly relations with the Palestinians. Israel behaves in a way that may cause it to be perceived as deliberately oppressing another people, denying that people its right to self-definition, discriminating against it, and denying it basic civil rights. In other, non-euphemistic, words, we are reaching a point where we will be compared with the apartheid regime that led the civilized world, to which we yearn to belong, to boycott South Africa. Time is running out and the threat is real. The mindset that is now becoming the decisive factor in Israeli conduct is marked by intolerance and incitement against the other, against those who are different, LGBTQ people, Arabs, legal and illegal immigrants, Blacks, non-Jews, leftists, and those who are not misogynists and not homophobes.

These are harsh words. There is no choice but to say them, as any attempt to avoid taking a hard look at the situation will only bring Israel closer to the abyss from which there is no return.

There is a way out. This isn’t a decree that cannot be overturned. I believe with all my heart in a different Israel, where we can argue without insulting each other, disagree without engaging in incitement, take conciliatory political positions without being considered traitors, reconcile with yesterday’s enemy without being perceived as desiring the state’s destruction, give up what was formerly considered ours without being labeled as betraying the state.

In my vision, I see a different Israel, one guided by a desire to reestablish the principles on which the Declaration of Independence was based, the Declaration that the greatest of our people’s leaders, David Ben-Gurion, read aloud in a clear and resonant voice on May 14, 1948.

The Israel for whose soul I want to fight must return to its natural borders, those within which we lived until 1967. We used to say that those were Auschwitz borders. In 1967 they indeed were Auschwitz borders. In 2023, at a distance of 56 years from those days of fear and anxiety, things are completely different. Israel is a regional power, with no enemy threatening its existence – not to the south, not to the east, and not to the north. Israel has enemies, but they are weaker than us. We need to be strong, well-trained, prepared for any threat that might be posed by hostile entities wishing to harm us, but there is no enemy threatening our very existence, not today and not in the foreseeable future. A political arrangement with the Palestinians is more crucial to our national security than another few kilometers of land, even if, over the course of our long history, that territory was once under our sovereignty.

The time has come to end the superficial, hollow, and inauthentic demagoguery over an undivided Jerusalem. Jabel Mukaber, Isawiya, the Shuafat refugee camp, Beit Hanina, Sheikh Jarrah, Kafr Aqab, and other Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem will never be part of our Jerusalem, and there is no reason for us to continue holding on to them and their hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents, who do not want to be part of Israel and to whom we never granted citizenship.

The holy places are holy to us all: to Jews, to Muslims, to Christians, and to all the other faiths. They need to be administered jointly, without any one country having sole political sovereignty over them. If we indeed want peace – this simple truth cannot be disregarded. Either we accept it, reconcile ourselves to it and come to love it, or we admit that we don’t want peace and continue living by the sword – forever.

I am prepared to live with this truth – with an Eretz Israel that isn’t entirely in our possession, with a Jewish Jerusalem where there is freedom of worship for all, and with holy places for Muslims, Jews, and Christians that we all treat with dignity, and with the idea that none of us has the right to dictate to others how they may devote themselves to their faith or how to honor their heritage.

The Israel I envision must fundamentally change its priorities.

We have to downsize our army to the proportions necessary to defend Israel from any enemy that might endanger its existence. Our air force will be based largely on sophisticated unmanned jets capable of bearing high-precision weapons in quantities that exceed the payload capacity of today’s jets. Israel will be able to defend itself via advanced laser-based systems capable of halting even ballistic missile attacks. Israel’s army will be a professional army, and its servicemen will serve under wage conditions entirely different from those of today.

Israel will officially decide to exempt yeshiva students from military service. The latter will engage in study if that is what they so wish. Most, once exempt from military service, will prefer to do other things; they will pursue studies that will enable them to achieve economic security. The Israeli economy will grow dramatically thanks to the addition of a large workforce that had formerly been dependent on governmental allowances. The yeshivot will shrink to much smaller proportions. Most Haredi young people will be free of the outsized burden of studies in which they do not wish to engage, and will start to live differently. The gap between the Haredi public and the rest of Israel will narrow. Israeli society will be less divided and more cohesive.

The education system will absorb the budgets freed up by the security forces. Today’s defense budgets are excessive; some are not even necessary to maintain the capabilities crucial to the state’s defense. The education system will be entirely self-managed. The schools will be budgeted directly, and their principals will have the authority to appoint teachers or replace them based on their qualifications and their suitability for the profession. The schools will be able to organize and implement the curriculum based on areas of concentration to be determined by their administrators and by parent representatives. Teacher salaries will be double what they are today. No school is considered good unless it is headed by suitable principal. No school can be considered to have worthy teachers unless its principal has the authority to approve and hire them. The self-management system was adopted by some Israeli schools years ago. It needs to be adopted comprehensively and across the board.

The government will work to establish additional medical schools. Medical resident salaries will be increased, as well as the number of nursing and administrative positions in Israeli hospitals.

Israel’s hospitalization system will be based on a different operating model from that in use today. The government hospitals will be detached from the Ministry of Health. They will become non-profit companies. Every hospital will be headed by a board of directors that will be responsible for its operation. The health-fund hospitals will undergo a similar transformation. A system of private healthcare services will be instituted in the public hospitals, and most of the revenue from the private services will be invested in strengthening the hospitals and increasing the income of their medical and administrative personnel. Israel’s primary healthcare system (the health funds) is one of the best in the world. The hospitals account for most of the healthcare system’s expenditure burden. Their operating structure needs reform.

The time has come to realize David Ben-Gurion’s dream and to make development of the Negev a major objective for the coming decade. We need a fast train line from Nahariya in the north, all the way to Eilat, travelling at a speed of up to 450 kilometers per hour. The distance between northern Israel and the country’s southern tip will be reduced to an hour or an hour-and-a-half of travel time. At the same time, a multi-lane highway should be constructed from Be’er Sheva to Eilat.

Reducing distances by building rapid-transportation infrastructures will make it possible to establish community settlements south of Be’er Sheva. Such localities will be based on free land allocations and on the construction of all necessary infrastructures – access roads, electricity, water, fiber optics, community centers, schools, industrial zones, and centers for culture, recreation and sports – solely at state expense.

This development plan will make it possible to build large homes equipped with everything necessary for a good quality of life, even in the Negev climate. Abu Dhabi lies in a desert whose climate is harsher and hotter than that of the Negev. Its residents live well, even very well. There is no reason why we shouldn’t build community settlements in the Negev where the price of a spacious single-family home would be comparable to that of a studio apartment in Tel Aviv.

Changes to the IDF’s size, budget, and armed force composition, changes in the structure and personnel complement of Israel’s education system, an additional reform of the nation’s healthcare system, and the development of the Negev – these are enormous projects. Each of them entails organization at the national, budgetary, and human levels, of a kind in which we have been unwilling to invest for years. It can be done, it is vital, and it is crucial if we are to succeed in changing Israel’s present character and quality of life.

The time has come to build our state rather than continuing to invest our economic and human resources in a land that is not ours, from which we will have to withdraw sooner or later – preferably sooner.

Can it be done? As someone greater than me once said – if we will it.


Ehud Olmert was the 12th prime minister of the State of Israel (2006-2009). He was mayor of Jerusalem (1993-2003)