Once again, Israel stood up to its nickname, Startup Nation, when two weeks ago Intel paid the awesome sum of $15.3 billion to acquire Mobileye, an Israeli company leading in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. While I’m proud of this accomplishment of my country, it nevertheless leaves me with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, it is good to know that, like Waze before it, the Israeli GPS that made driving much simpler for millions of people, Mobileye will enhance safety on the roads and guide future autonomous and driverless cars, the next quantum leap in transportation.
On the other hand, perhaps Israel itself is some kind of an autonomous car. There seems to be a driver at the steering wheel and the pedals — Benjamin Netanyahu — but he lets the car drive itself, autonomously, toward a destination the majority of passengers don’t want: a one, bi-national state, where Israel either loses its Jewish character or its democracy.
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who knows something about security, recently warned that the biggest threat to Israel was not external, but rather the failure to make a decision that will save Israel from the disastrous one-state scenario.
Pardo’s warning seemed to have made little impression. Not only are the Israeli passengers not complaining about their car driving them where they don’t want to go, but they even seem to be happy with their situation. In the recently released World Happiness Report 2017, Israel scored 11th. That the Palestinians scratched bottom in the same index, something that would inevitably lead to explosion, doesn’t seem to bother their happy Israelis neighbors.
If this indifference to whatever happens outside the car is surprising, then how about the fact that the Israeli passengers don’t even trust the man sitting at the wheel of their autonomous car, appearing to be driving them. Only one of four of them voted for him in the 2014 elections. According to a recent poll, fewer would do so if elections were held today. And when the Israel Democracy Institute asked for their opinion recently, only 27 percent said that they trusted the government, down from 36 percent last year. They do, however, trust the IDF (82 percent) and their fellow Israelis (71 percent).
To the Israeli passengers’ credit it must be said that their experience with drivers who have tried to steer their car away from the one, bi-national state, hasn’t been rosy. Yitzhak Rabin paid with his life for initiating a settlement with the Palestinians; in 2000, Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat the moon at Camp David, but got a rejection and another intifada; Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza only to receive rockets in return and, anyway, fell into a coma; and Ehud Olmert was close to signing a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, but then his own corruption torpedoed it.
With this grim record, no wonder the Israelis, who care about their security more than anything else, prefer a smooth ride in an autonomous car — with Netanyahu occasionally making driving noises — rather than risking another adventure by a leader at the steering wheel. And having to pay less for car ownership, fuel, maintenance, and insurance, why bother? If, and when, the one, bi-national state obstacle emerges on the road, salvation will somehow come from the IDF, or from fellow Israelis, or — if all else fails — from God.
Still, Israeli passengers have started to wonder about the man sitting closest to the wheel. Two police investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged corruption — not questions about where he lets the car take them — raised doubts about the prudence of keeping him where he is.
Furthermore, Netanyahu seems to be obsessed with fiddling with the car’s radio, insisting that the passengers only listen to music and programs that he likes. He already has a free newspaper working for him, Yisrael Hayom, and when in 2014 a motion to force that paper to charge readers was proposed, Netanyahu called for elections only to thwart it. Today he is determined to kill a nascent public broadcasting corporation he helped establish, for no less dubious reasons, and again threatens to hold elections nobody wants.
Sitting in this ill-destined car with my fellow Israelis, I wonder: Is it my advanced age that explains my aversion to autonomous driving?
Maybe. Last year J.D. Power’s U.S. Tech Choice Study showed that only 27 percent of Generation X, 18 percent of Generation Y and 11 percent of Generation Z said they “definitely would not” trust the technology, while 39 percent of Baby Boomers and 40 percent of pre-Boomers said the same. Should I leave it then to Generation Z, my grandchildren, to worry about all that?
No way. Serving under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, I saw a leader at the wheel daring to make a choice between two evils: great security risks on the one hand vs. the loss of the Zionist dream on the other hand. This is a decision not to be left to autonomous driving.
Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club, a former spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments and a retired colonel in the Israeli Air Force. He writes a column on Israeli affairs for the Miami Herald.