If I Were Israel — I'd Move

A Glum Assessment of a Very Bad Neighborhood

Tumult: A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi shows his blood-stained hand while holding a placard bearing handprints made with the blood of victims who were shot during a gun battle outside the Cairo headquarters of the Republican Guard on July 5.
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Tumult: A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi shows his blood-stained hand while holding a placard bearing handprints made with the blood of victims who were shot during a gun battle outside the Cairo headquarters of the Republican Guard on July 5.

By Leonard Fein

Published July 06, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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If I were Israel, I’d move. The entire neighborhood, once more or less bearable even though always problematic, has gone to hell.

Egypt: In 1978, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize. (Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Egypt/Israel peace treaty, remained a bridesmaid rather then being recognized as the officiant.) Since that time, through thick and considerable thin, the treaty has held.

But now, with the Egyptian army back in control and President Mohamed Morsi under house arrest, Egypt hovers just shy of failed state status. The country’s economy is essentially collapsed, its social and political divisions are explosive, the once-proud nation that was the clear leader of the Arab world has been transformed from an exclamation point into a question mark.

Iran: Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, has been saying many of the right things, although he has so far been silent regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But between saying the right things and doing the right things there is a perilous gap, and it remains to be seen whether Rohani is nimble enough to heal the wounds that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, inflicted on the country he led. Plus: Iran, so far, remains a pariah state not only because of its nuclear aspirations but also because of its support for terrorist organizations and for Bashar el-Assad in Syria.

Syria: A hundred thousand dead and counting, a civil war that shows no sign of imminent resolution and that raises very grave questions regarding what the morning after will be about if the anti-government forces prevail.

Iraq: Does a day go by that we do not read or hear of new lethal violence?

Lebanon: Once the seductive Switzerland — or Riviera — of the Middle East, now a dour place, a playground for others’ ambitions.

Jordan: Who knows? Jordan has been blessed with thoughtful monarchs, but beneath the surface unrest festers.

The trouble with moving, however, is not merely that there is no obvious place to go, nor even that, as Herzl came to understand, geography matters and that it is Jerusalem that ignites Jewish passion. It is that when you move, you take with you all your foibles. Running away is generally no solution. (My dictionary defines “escapism” as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.) And it is, of course, a fantasy to think that Israel can pick up and move.

Still, even aside from the obvious security issues and the futility of escapism, Israel’s neighborhood is an odd place. Recent surveys show that most Israelis think of themselves as of the West rather than as of the Middle East. In taste and temperament, in culture and in industry, in aspiration and in achievement, that seems an entirely reasonable disposition. Indeed, that is one of the core reasons its neighbors resent it; it feels to them that Israel is an alien enclave. Hummus and sabich (try it, you’ll like it) aside, the prizes go to MacDonald’s and Home Depot and Intel and a list of imported Americana too long to detail.

These days, there is one tiny promising straw in the wind. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lost control of his party. It has been taken over by people quite far to his right. He, even he, is rendered cramped, anxious. Is this, then, the time for him to emulate Ariel Sharon and try to create a more centrist entity, as Sharon did when he established Kadima?

It may be too late for that. It is doubtful that a new party would draw many current Likud activists. The drift is rightward, not centerward. But failing that, Netanyahu may be courting forced retirement.

The Left, however, has no obvious alternative. Almost all who might see themselves as plausible candidates come with far too much baggage or with far too little recognition. The very recent experience of supporting an apparently pure outsider — Yair Lapid — has turned sour as Lapid has stumbled while trying to manage Israel’s economy. Nor by any stretch of the imagination can Lapid be considered a man of the Left.

Most Israelis, the polls tell us, believe in a two-state solution but also believe that it is not at all likely on the near or even intermediate horizon. Were a political leader to emerge who would take the Arab peace initiative seriously as a basis for negotiation, he or she might galvanize support — or might go down in flames. So far, no one has volunteered for the job. Nor is there anyone who believes that the current efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry will bear fruit. At best, and even this is doubtful, those efforts might lead to a resumption of negotiation, and then comes the set of intractable problems that have wrecked previous negotiations.

Which is why glum’s the word, unruly neighbors or not.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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