Curtain Raiser

Hoping for a New Israel, Colltalers

The most important political event this week, relevant to the U.S., the Middle East, and to the world, is tomorrow’s Prime Minister election, in Israel. It’s a crucial vote even if it grants an unprecedented, but expected, fourth term to incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.
But unlike what he and his Likud Party would like us to believe, a win won’t necessarily represent an endorsement to the aggressive settlement expansion and military policies, along the paralyzing fear, with what his leadership has subjugated the Israeli society.
Before going any further, though, a word about approaching this highly sensitive subject, which often entangles even seasoned political commentators – which we’re definitely not -, and provokes exacerbated reactions and passionate opinions from anyone.
For what’s usually lost in most views about Israel and its troubled neighbors is the fact that criticism of its political leadership does not ultimately translates into anti-Semitism, or support to the terrorist tactics of its enemies, however justified they may feel about them.
Also, it’s important to note that there’s no historical equivalence between the systematic extermination of Jews, by Nazi Germany during WW2, and the current oppression and denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people by Israel, even if the specific brutality of the conflicts between the two is indeed comparable, and that the Israeli military is overwhelmingly superior to the Palestinians.
Finally, and that’s what makes this even harder to discuss with an even mindset, it’s necessary to emphasize that, according to generally accepted democratic principles, one doesn’t need a set of pre-conditions before being allowed to express his or her opinion.
Such principles should apply even if said opinion is not politically correct or fair, or accurate, and the person expressing it hasn’t physically visited the area, or holds an elective office, or has even marginally an interest on the issue, apart from a personal view.
On to the theme. Israel election hangs on three major issues, only one of which Netanyahu discussed on his speech to Republicans in Congress two weeks ago: the Palestinians, domestic social policies, and the one-note samba he seems to always invoke whenever he comes to the U.S., Iran. We’ll come back to the speech later, but let’s focus on his favorite foe for just a moment.
First of all, Israel has the same right of fearing Iran’s nuclear capability, as any New Yorker now fears being crushed by a commercial airliner, just as an Iraqi farmer must be constantly afraid of ISIL thugs, or an Afghan civilian of being killed by a drone.
But in the same token, so do Palestinians in relation to Israel’s own nuclear power, or anyone living in the region, in case of a fatal escalation with Iran, and the rest of the world, for that matter, since it’s unthinkable what that could trigger globally.
So, if Israel’s fears make sense, Bibi has only stoked them to his own political gain. Although Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is not completely in charge of the country, since his 2013 election, anti-Israeli rhetoric in the country has been considerably toned down.
And then there are the U.S.-led talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, which continue and have, indeed, made more progress lately than in several years. It’s a credit to the Obama administration that it remains committed to a diplomatic solution that would imply concessions by Iran, and could lead to some stability in the region. Arguably, Israel is the one standing to gain the most with it.
Its prime minister, however, has done almost everything in his power to sabotage and undermine any prospect for a peaceful solution, even though it’s clear that it could not sustain on its own a, heaven forbid, nuclear conflict with Iran.
He’s been following the same old, and dangerous, pre-emptive approach prescribed by the Likud, just as he’s done with potential new interlocutors in the Gaza strip. Isolationism, and a bit of victimhood theatrics, has thus been the tenor of his administration.
One would think that there couldn’t be anything else to be added to Netanyahu’s brazen attempt to bring his campaign to his non-voting constituency in the U.S., but as it turned out, there was: the now infamous 47 Republicans who signed a letter to Iran, going behind President Obama’s back and against his will, and threatening to derail every hard-fought progress made in the nuclear talks.
The spectacularly misguided, and unacceptable, act of mutiny, by a congress bent on embarrassing the president, but that has, instead, embarrassed itself, may have already run its course without much damage to anyone else. It opened a reckless precedent, though, that should be dealt with by its leadership with stern resolve. But it’s doubtful that the GOP will exercise humility and admit the blunder.
Most likely, the talks will reach a workable point, from which to built trust and empower diplomacy as the tool of choice for dealing with international conflicts. It’s too bad that it’s unlike that such an example will be applied to other conflicts as well, at least for now.
That Netanyahu’s new version of the same speech he’s made in 2011, then to both Republicans and Democrats, is being used in his campaign in Israel shouldn’t surprise anyone; again, the GOP is the one to be publicly shamed here, as it served as his political pawn.
But what’s much more important is why he hasn’t been challenged by anyone for blatantly avoiding the Palestinian issue on his speech, specifically, the fate of totaled Gaza post-bombardments, and Israel’s continuous push for new settlements. Both Republicans and Democrats should be chastised, even those of the ‘Israeli-wing,’ always so afraid of losing Jewish support.
Bibi’s biggest threat in this election is not his opposition rivals, Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, supported by Labor and center-left coalitions, but it’s the Likud losing Parliament seats, which would immediately compromise his position for the first time since 2009.
They, and other candidates, have gained in the polls by pointing at Israel’s high costs of living, diminished job prospects, and apathy towards the strengthening grip of the religious right on the country. Another unexpected force jockeying for influence over its future is a group of wealthy Western evangelicals, hoping to see deranged biblical prophecies fulfilled on the backs of regular Israelis.
In other words, just your normal, run-of-the-mill domestic politics that any nation is supposed to examine during its election cycles. That the internal politics of a young and small country suddenly has the potential to disrupt the world’s precarious power balance has less to do with its historical U.S. connection than with its geographical position, nuclear weapons, and the vagaries of globalization.
Israel’s clear and present danger is not Iran, but its unsettling relations with the Palestinians, their mutual economic co-dependence, and the appallingly subhuman existence of over 1,800 million Gazan, indeed a threat to their more powerful next door neighbor.
Perhaps what concerns Bibi and the Likud is Iran’s potential ascension as a stabilizing force in the region. With ISIL fighting al-Qaeda over Iraqi supremacy, besides fighting their common enemies, the coalition forces, and the Syrian civil war reaching its fourth year, Iran may just seize the opportunity, which Israel’s has lost with Bibi, of playing a constructive role for a change.
At the end of the day, we hope that nuclear talks with Iran succeed, not only for the sake of Israel, but for the whole region. And that it, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt finally realize that the Middle East doesn’t need to be a place where the U.S. periodically is called upon to wreak havoc. It’d also disarm the unattainable demand for the American military complex to be constantly on the ready.
No matter how much Netanyahu wishes to make his campaign an American issue, or Pentagon hawks defend the need for U.S. military involvement, history has proved that we always managed to turn the situation worse. Each day, as the body count mounts, there are less reasons for anyone to be bombing those countries back to the Middle Ages. Sorry, Israel, but it’s for your own good.
As the sole democracy in the area, amid a lot of dysfunctional but very rich countries, it’s now, as it always should be, up to Israelis to determine what’s the best course to take. Chances are, short of a U.S.’s open-ended military hand, such course may favor a peaceful solution of coexistence, tolerance, and mutual respect with its neighbors, Palestinians and Iranians included. Happy St. Patrick Day. WC

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