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Israel on the eve of 5779: the good, the bad and the exaggerated
Not every headache augurs a stroke, nor every rosy cheek perfect health.
A tale is told, perhaps apocryphal, of an Israeli minister who traveled to the United States in the early 1950s to garner support among American Jews.
At a New York synagogue the excited crowd gathered around the minister of the newly established Jewish state and entreated him: “Tells us in one word, Mr. Minister: How is the situation in Israel?”
“And in two words,” the crowd entreated, “tell us in two words.”
“In two words,” the minister replied, “not good.”
What was true then is equally true as Jews around the world on Sunday night usher in the Jewish year of 5779.
What was good back then was that, after nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people finally had a state. What was good was that the Jews, coming out of the Holocaust, had an effective army, were in control of their own fate, could determine their own destiny.
What was not good was that things were tough, very tough.
The fledgling country had just come out of a war of independence in which it lost close to 1% of its entire population. Its Arab neighbors were no closer to accepting its existence than they were when David Ben-Gurion declared a state in 1948. And penniless immigrants from the four corners of the globe were flooding into the country. Life was hard.
Today, too, an argument could be made that this good/not good dichotomy is still relevant. And as Israel enters a year in which there will almost certainly be an election, we will be bombarded with hearing about the good, as well as the not good.
For the good, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his rosy view at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, using as a jumping-off point the figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics this week that found that 89% of the people in the country are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their lives.
This, Netanyahu said, “is a result of Israel’s citizens knowing that it is good to live in Israel. Israel is a rising global power. Its economy is growing and flourishing. Our foreign relations are flourishing.
Infrastructures are being built. Life is good in the State of Israel in every respect. Tourism is at record levels, and so on and so forth.”
He said the GNP is rising, unemployment is declining, the credit rating is at an all-time high, and even the country’s inequality index – among the highest among OECD states – is declining.
And for the not good, all that one will have to do to hear about all that is bad with the country is listen in the run-up to the elections to the opposition politicians, who will paint a picture of a nation teetering on the edge of the abyss; politicians like former prime minister Ehud Barak, for instance.
Barak, when asked perfunctorily on a radio show last month how he was doing, replied, “Personally, excellent; nationally, horrible.”
When queried by the interviewer, Why horrible? a prickly Barak replied, “Look around. You don’t read newspapers? You don’t see?”
What Barak and others who stress the “not good” aspect of Israel’s current situation always highlight are the investigations against the prime minister, the right-wing laws in the Knesset they argue are putting Israel on a decidedly illiberal – if not downright racist – path, the situation in Gaza, and the break with certain segments of American Jewry.
But Barak and others who want to unseat Netanyahu in the coming year must be careful to calibrate their negative messages. It would be unwise to paint the situation as too awful, because then the public – pretty satisfied with life here – will not see their own reality in the dim pictures being painted for them.
In the run-up to the election in 2015 – when polls were forecasting doom for Netanyahu and the Likud – the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni was asked in a radio interview whether there was any validity in Netanyahu’s claims that he was being mistreated by the press. She replied that instead of whining about how he appears in the newspapers, Netanyahu should be concerned that people don’t have enough money to buy newspapers.
Which was a good sound bite but a statement divorced from reality. Netanyahu and the Likud won again.
As Israel looks back on the past year and the major national security and diplomatic issues that it is facing, it is important to keep it real – don’t exaggerate, neither the good nor the bad. It is also important to realize that often the good and the bad commingle on the same issue.
Gaza is no closer to a resolution now than it was on the eve of last Rosh Hashanah. That’s the bad news. This is particularly frustrating because while Israel wants stability along its southern border, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Iran – which has considerable influence on what goes on inside Gaza – do not share that interest.
Hamas wants to keep Gaza as a festering sore on Israel’s side; the PA would like nothing more for the situation to spiral out of control and force Israel to move in to restore control to President Mahmoud Abbas; and Iran just wants to keep pinpricking Israel from as many fronts as possible.
But it is not apocalypse now, as Hamas does not have an interest in another all-out war with Israel. As we saw this summer, they will push the envelope with violent riots and incendiary kites, but will stop short of doing what would invite full-fledged retaliation from Israel – at least for the time being.
The Palestinian track
There is currently no diplomatic process with the Palestinians – things are stuck, and the chances of them somehow getting unstuck in the coming year are very slim.
The Palestinians realize the most Israel is willing to give does not meet their minimum requirements, so they have concluded it is a waste of time to negotiate. Their hope – dashed temporarily at least, thanks to US President Donald Trump – is that the world will step in and impose a solution on Israel.
The coming year is likely to see more of the same. Abbas is waiting for Trump to be forced out or voted out of office, and for the Israeli government to change; Israel is waiting to see who will replace Abbas and whether anyone can wrest control of Gaza from Hamas’s hands, and the Americans are waiting for stars to align just right so they can unveil their long-awaited peace plan.
Nothing is happening; that’s the bad news. But the good news is that things are also not exploding, terrorism is not running wild, and – unlike in the past – there are regional actors, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who have an interest in ensuring that matters do not spiral out of control. If, in the past, countries in the Arab world were spurring on Palestinian radicalism and rejectionism, now – because of the interest in cooperating with Israel to combat Iran – some at least have a keen interest in keeping a lid on developments.
After years when Syria, because of its civil war, was sidelined as a significant strategic threat to Israel, that changed this year as the war there began winding down.
The bad news is that Iran is intent on using its position in Syria to attack Israel. Israel has made it clear to Syria and Iran through constant military strikes that it will not allow this to happen. The good news? The Russians, the dominant player in Syria, have done nothing to stop Israel’s strikes.
Syria is a huge challenge, but Jerusalem, as it showed this year, is not without its own tools – diplomatic and military – to deal with it.
Trump’s decision in May to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal has significantly changed the calculus regarding the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian economy is reeling, there are demonstrations in the country’s streets, and it is not able to act as confidently as it did just a few months ago to destabilize the region and threaten its enemies, including Israel.
US Ambassador David Friedman put it well this week when he said during a speech that Iran “is under extraordinary pressure.”
“Defeated?” he asked. “Most certainly not. But with every new day there’s a growing basis for optimism. The pressure on Iran will continue to mount.”
Which does not mean that the regime of the ayatollahs is on the verge of collapse – something that has been predicted many times in the past amid international pressure and domestic turbulence. But Iran has been taken down a peg as a result of Trump’s move, and is not casting as long a shadow over Israel this year, as it did last Rosh Hashanah.
Relations with the US
Trump has ushered in a new era in ties with Israel – that is the good news. Washington’s tone toward Israel under his stewardship has changed dramatically; the settlements have ceased to be a constant source of friction between the countries; the embassy move to Jerusalem was a huge symbolic gesture to Israel; the decision to cut funds to UNRWA sent an unmistakable message to the Palestinians that rejectionism has a price; and the new US policy toward Iran has already had an impact.
There is, therefore, much for Netanyahu to be satisfied about in Israel’s ties with the US.
But not all is sunshine. The deep divisions inside the US over Trump are evident in deep divisions between the parties regarding Israel, with the emergent far-Left in the Democratic Party increasingly questioning the fundamental basis of the US-Israel relationship. In addition, the growing distance between Israel and certain elements of American Jewry – a distance that can be blamed on both sides – doesn’t add to Israel’s overall health.
And when looking at this health, all is neither bleak nor rosy. Not every headache portends a stroke, nor does every flush cheek signal robust fitness.
The trick, as the country begins the new year, is to pocket the good, try to benefit from the good, widen what is good, while trying to limit the effects of the bad. But to do that, a sober view of both the positives and negatives is needed – a view likely be elusive in the upcoming election year, a period when both the good and the bad will be wildly exaggerated.