Monday, December 25, 2006

Brothers in Arms?

I never thought I'd see the day when Bibi Netanyahu supports peace talks whilst long time dove Shimon Peres is against. Truth is, discussions over peace with Syria aren’t that simple – things rarely are in the Middle East; but Bashar Assad's offer to start negotiations without preconditions has got everyone arguing and throwing in their two pennies. I don’t see why I should be any different.

There are clear strategic reasons for ignoring Bashar's pleas – Syria's regime is in trouble and its Alawite minority rule looks increasingly threatened in the face of international isolation. And as Head of Mossad Meir Dagan said recently, initiating dialogue with Syria would not only be a stab in the back of the moderate Arab States, but to our friends the U.S aswell.

There are also strong emotional attachments to the Golan. As Arik Bachar wrote last week in Yediot Acharonot, the public loves the area so much that the chance a referendum on giving back the Heights would pass is currently about as high as the Teheran Conference concluding that the Shoah actually happened.

And why shouldn’t Israelis love the Golan - its beautiful, peaceful, quiet. It's populated by good ideological people. There aren’t any demographic issues like in the territories; very few Arabs, no Intifada; no rocks or Kassams are being fired…

All in all, it’s a bit like the Sinai was in 1971, two years before the Yom Kippur War.

And that’s what worries me…Because if we aren’t prepared to discuss the future of a place when (or specifically because) its quiet, we may well be forced to discuss its future when its not. How can we convince our neighbours that Israelis don’t just understand force when we reject negotiations during peacetime?

And what will we say to the next Commission of Inquiry that assesses why we lost hundreds of soldiers in what may well be an unnecessary conflict with Syria?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Zionism and Looking on the Bright Side

A conversation with a colleague’s father last week got me thinking. A businessman based in Israel but who travels abroad, he told me that his impression is many Israelis feel very negatively about the future. To be honest, when you spend all day cooped up with other analysts ‘thinking’ about future political trends, it’s very difficult to have your finger on the pulse of the average Israeli. But deep down, I think he’s right – since last summer’s war, there has been a loss of confidence in the government and state institutions. And many people are increasingly anxious and depressed about the future.

Before I made Aliya friends from the Embassy gave me a book called the Xenophobes guide to Israelis; It’s the type of book that prepares you for dealing with Israelis, you know, “every Israeli you meet has, by his own repute, spent his army years in a top combat unit (when in fact he was a cook in a base situated 100 metres from his home). Israelis will say they run an ‘intimate boutique’ (underwear store) ‘manage a transportation business’ (drive a taxi) or ‘own a new executive automobile (a 1979 Volvo, recently acquired, hence ‘new’ to the owner)”

Curiously enough, there does seem to be an Israeli characteristic of exaggeration. Pre-election people felt Bibi was a loser who destroyed the country’s poor; 3 months later he was the most popular leader in Israel. 6 months ago, a civilian was the ideal candidate for Defence Minister; now we are lining up ex generals to replace him. In the first days of the second Lebanon war we kicked arse, yet a fortnight later we suffered a humiliating defeat. As former Defence Minister
Moshe Arens recently wrote “What is it about Israelis? Are they just plain fickle or do they have a problem making up their minds? Like a pendulum, their opinions and moods swing back and forth.”

2 weeks ago was the 29th November. And in addition to being a Jerusalem road where Olmert used to live, the date signifies the UN 1947 partition plan for Mandatory Palestine. Despite their reservations, the Ben Gurion led Yishuv accepted the plan. It wasn’t ideal by any means, wasn’t what the Jews had dreamed of. It didn’t even include Jerusalem as part of the proposed State. But in many ways, I think the acceptance of the partition plan is what Zionism is about – being satisfied with something less than our dreams – and making reasoned decisions of what is achievable at any particular time given the circumstances.

For Israeli’s it seems, our country is either the best or the worst, either the most moral army in the world or an evil occupier; a tourist's dream or a constant target of terrorism. But its the in-between, that grey area, the part where subtleties exist, where real life plays out. And if we are constantly oscillating between extremes how will we be able to make rational choices about our future?

In a post war column in the New York Times, Tom Friedman wrote that “Listening to the post-Lebanon-war debate in Israel leaves me wanting to say just one thing to Israelis: Get a grip on! Israel is behaving like it lost the Lebanon war and now needs to tear itself apart, limb by limb, with investigations and new elections… As [Nasrallah] put it in an interview on Lebanon's NTV, ''If I had known on July 11 that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.'' Even he doesn't think he won.”

The economy is also testifying to peoples’ faith in the future. Israel is one of
Donald Trump's favorite places in the world and the Tel Aviv Stock market has jumped 22% since the end of the war. Despite interest rates going down, the Shekel is up against the dollar. And businessmen don’t invest because they have romantic ideas about an ancient people reborn in their historic homeland – they do it because they want to make money. They do it because they believe Israel is stable and has a strong future.

We live in a great country, in historic times. And of course we have problems, and unless we are careful and wise, the geo strategic balance of power may turn against us. We may well be left to confront Iran alone and the Palestinians are not turning into members of Chovavei Tzion any time soon. But classical Zionism is about seeing the grey and embracing the incompleteness of having a State in real life rather than in our utopian dreams, about taming our tendencies to exaggerate.

It’s about trying, in these very difficult and challenging times, to get a grip on and be thankful for what we have.

footnote - a week after this post, I read the following article by Yair Lapid sarcastically discussing the Israeli love of polls and superficiality of public opinion. "Not once in four years, not because you learned the material, not because you gathered all the information. Now, right now, vote now, with one click, without hesitating, because the lines are going to close very shortly. Trust yourselves, go with your gut feelings, instinct replaced intellect long ago. Only you understand the question of who is best suited to be defense minister, finance minister, justice minister. Only you know who is best suited to lead his soldiers into Bint Jbeil."