Friday, November 21, 2014

Obama in Israel’s New World

PARIS – Now that Binyamin Netanyahu has formed a new Israeli government out of a dizzying kaleidoscope of possible post-election permutations, has the country’s politics moved to the center? US President Barack Obama would be wrong to think so as he prepares for his first official visit.

The unexpected second-place finish of Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party in the recent election has certainly changed the complexion of the government: the two leading Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are out, while two smaller centrist parties, Kadima and Hatnua, are in. But those who breathed a sigh of relief at the weakening of Netanyahu’s Likud and the country’s extreme right-wing parties should be as anxious as ever.

The political horse-trading is over for the time being, and the outcome seems assured. Netanyahu will return as Prime Minister, and every party – in power or not – is ready to block, dilute, or paper over whatever policies the new government manages to adopt. In Israel, the question nowadays is not whether the center will hold, but whether it matters.

In both domestic and in international terms, Israel has not so much moved to the center as it has embraced a new type of national consensus that began to emerge in 2011. In May-June of that year, while the international community was still mooting potential land swaps for an increasingly distant peace settlement with the Palestinians, Israelis were focusing on a domestic battle over the regulation of cottage cheese.

The new consensus was best symbolized by the massive popular protests that erupted two months later, bringing together young, economically frustrated, mainly middle-class Israelis who might once have been politically divided by their allegiance to either the center-left Labor party or Netanyahu’s Likud. No mention was made, then or now, of the need for peace initiatives; of the state of mind of the now-invisible (to Israeli eyes) Palestinians, now relegated to their side of the security wall; or of the growing inequalities that separate Israel’s Arab citizens from their Jewish counterparts.

By representing the aspirations of middle class Israelis seeking a better economic deal, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett of the nationalist Jewish Home party became the two sides of a newly minted political coin, one backed by an inward-looking ethnic and national identity in a country that sees itself as alone in the world. This identity may be secular or religious; it may seek middle-class normality or proclaim an Israeli version of manifest destiny – the two are not incompatible. Either way, the country no longer resonates with the expectations, hopes, and fears of a world still focused (ever more dimly) on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nor does Israel listen to the anguish of its own Ciceronian Zionists, perhaps best represented by the novelist Amos Oz. Israel has simply stopped seeking to reconcile its Jewish identity with its commitment to democracy, for it has stopped addressing the contradiction that the Israeli-Palestinian question represents.

Simply put, that contradiction is no longer relevant to the new Israel. Despite the deep economic frustrations of many of its middle-class citizens (the truly indigent did not protest), Israel has become a global economic and military powerhouse. The country increasingly lives in its own virtual reality, simultaneously proximate to and far removed from the revolutionary pre-modernity of most of its neighbors.

Indeed, Israel is now on an equal footing with all of the rising new powers of an increasingly globalized world. Few of them are democracies, and not one of them holds Israel to task for its settlement policies in the West Bank or cares, like the United States, about Middle East peace. Why should Israel continue to focus on a weakened West that is constantly reprimanding it when the rest of the world beckons?

Nor does the old secular/religious divide have much salience anymore. Israel has become post-modern, producing new – and sometimes startling – synergies among its avant-garde high-tech sensibility, its secular and ever more orthodox religious identities, and its overall ethno-nationalist outlook. Its ancient biblical past can now coexist seamlessly with its ultra-modern present. Israel’s new millionaires can easily live in far-flung settlements in “Judea and Samaria” and commute daily to their coastal startups.

And the army has already become the purview of nationalistic and religious cadres, even without conscription of the ultra-orthodox – one of the centrist camp’s demands in pressing for fairer national burden-sharing. As a result, the Israeli state seems to be moving closer to its Asian counterparts, with their emphasis on economic innovation and their indifference to universal values or, for that matter, peace.

Israel is now proud to be in a world of its own, in which it feels free to act unilaterally and scoff at toothless criticism from Europe (and now partly from the US). There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu’s new government will seek to revive the increasingly feeble and moribund peace process, beyond offering verbal promises and inconsequential half-measures.

Nor should anyone expect a moratorium on settlement expansion. On the contrary, the settlements offer cheaper housing than is available in Israel, and thus resolve one of the main economic problems of the country’s middle class.

“Red lines” in Israel have a way of mutating into lines drawn in the sand, which are then rendered invisible at the slightest wind. The new government’s fragile equilibrium only reinforces this sober interpretation.

In Israel, Obama will encounter a country that has indeed moved, but not toward a missing center. It has moved into its own orbit.

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    1. CommentedPatrick Lietz

      Whichever view you take in the debate on Israel and whether it should have a Jewish identity or the "right" to exist, the fact of the matter is that Israel cannot survive without the continued support of the US. Similarly, European support is also important, as most of Israel's trade is with Europe.

      As such, the extent of popular support for Israel in these regions carries weight. There is little doubt that this support is waning and opposition to further support is increasing.

      Israel may behave in any way it wishes to, but should also understand that this comes with a price. No BRIC or Asian nation will come to Israel's rescue in times of need, and preferential treatments are not to be had.

      This will be the attitude that Israel will have to come to expect from Europe and even the US in the not too distant future, if it does not change its policies towards the Palestinians or the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

    2. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      Something fundamentally is missed here.

      The PA continues to publicly honor anyone who has killed Israeli citizens, even a busload of children. It continues to educate children in the hatred of all things Israeli, without any thought to even to future toleration of a Jewish minority within a Palestine in the elimination of an Israeli state. Hamas is even more direct on its intent for Israeli Jewish citizens. In short, in all internal actions, all present Palestinian leadership has geared its society, even the next generation, for never accepting any peace for any amount of land.

      Atop this, lies a continuous history of land for non-Arabic promises of peace, followed by intifada and terrorism, followed by new demands, and so forth. For the average Israeli, the ever-improving missile batteries aimed at their cities from the last bit of land given for peace, serves as a most bitter reminder. At each stage, Israel is generally unilaerally condemned for anything and everything under the sun by an automatic majority. Already years back, one peace camp Israeli complained that others equated his "Peace Now" bumper sticker with "Idiot" -- and frankly he was finding it difficult not to agree with them.

      Is it any wonder that the average Israeli now sees "land for peace" as the same kind of slogan as "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Labor Makes Freedom"), placed over the entrance way of some WWII Nazi death camps. So what did they do in the ghettos and camps? -- Focus internally.

      But is this healthy? Ultimate perhaps, this would be best for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Arab World in general.

      The Israelis must come to a sense of true unity -- a sense of national cohesiveness not primarily founded on a common existential threat. Such physical threat and build up of this mentality, has literally been without real let up since Israel's inception, and continued naturally when joined by others also fleeing the threat of physical or cultural annihilation -- whether survivors of the Second World war, the 600,000 Jewish refugees from the surrounding Arab countries, or those who fled Ethiopia or left Russia. And of course, the land for peace kicks in the teeth have only hardened things further.

      As well, soul searching among the Palestinians themselves is required. What realistically do they want eventually? Can they find a unity, a cultural bonding among their own people which does not depend upon a common hatred of the "Zionist enemy"? Golda Meir once stated that once Israel's neighbors loved their own children more than they hated Israel, then there would be peace -- can the Palestinians, on a national level, make this breakthrough and challenge the Israelis with it?

      And the surrounding milieu, from the Arabian peninsula to Tehran, simply cannot be ignored in this -- it is absurd to think the whole matter of peace is limited to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

      Ultimately though Golda Meir's message represents a universal challenge. When love of our human commonality overcomes our hatred of difference -- that hatred will transform into respect and a sense of mutual responsibility. Only then will the ever darkening clouds over the whole world part to let in the sun's rays.

      Whether historic, or merely the writer's creative, there was a particularly poignant scene from a docudrama on the life of Gandhi years back. During Gandhi's hunger strike, a certain trouble Hindu approached Gandhi about believing himself destined for hell over his murder of a Muslim child during a riot. Gandhi told the man that he knew a way out of hell. Find a Muslim orphan, and raise him as you would your own child -- but raise him to be a Muslim.

      Can the Israeli, the Palestinians, Arab nations, and general Muslim World, and in fact the whole world -- particularly Europe today -- find it in themselves to reach the level of love above hate that Gandhi recommends? Of all wars, it is this internal one -- and it must truly be a "world war" (against a truly common enemy) -- that will be the fiercest, and whose victory will be the sweetest -- forever...

    3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The article and its assessment could be disputed in many ways, for example we could examine which proud modern western democracy would still pass as "free and democratic", starting with the US, following with the EU, and so on, or which leading nation is not on "their own orbit", making self centered decisions, always bending the rules towards themselves, only making connections, agreements when it suits them.
      But the main point of the article is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and why this point was not the main topic of the recent Israeli elections.
      The reason is that looking from the viewpoint of the Israeli public the Israel-Palestinian conflict has no simple "two state solution".
      The conflict is not about "two states". The problem is about Israel's right to exist in the Middle East among multiple Muslim, Arabic nations. (Not to mention the other sometimes much more severe conflicts within the Arab world which has no relation to Israel at all.)
      No peace accord with the Palestinians would have any meaningful future unless a complete regional, moreover worldwide settlement is achieved, creating a full agreement between Israel and all the other Muslim, Arabic nations and their world wide supporters.
      If such a full settlement is not achieved the Palestinians will be always used as cannon fodders, provoking agents against the Jewish state.
      Demanding an isolated "two state solution" is similar to the short sighted, quick fix, superficial solutions for the global economical and financial crisis, without assessing and truly solving the real problems.
      There are no quick, easy fixes in today's global, interconnected world, there are no isolated solutions, only global, mutually responsible ones.
      In terms of the new government in Israel, and the new shift towards a more equal, more balanced Israel society, people outside of Israel should actually hope it works, and that it can achieve a true, long lasting national unity, as impossible and improbable it seems.
      The matter is if in Israel, where the public is so multi-colored, multi-cultured, and some segments of the society truly hate reject each other, people can achieve national unity, mutual cooperation above all those differences and hatred, it could provide a blueprint for the crises ridden global world how to rise above inherent differences and hatred and start building something mutual together.