An astounding aspect of our prime minister's hospitalization has been the attention it has evoked throughout the world. The medical reports are disseminated live on the major television channels; his medical condition makes the front pages not only in the US and Europe, but even in China, Japan and India.
Yet Israel is a comparatively tiny speck on the face of the earth. Our population is small, and we have hardly any raw materials. We are just a little larger than Qatar, which has the second largest gas reserves in the world. We are approximately the same size in population as Denmark, but it is an influential player in the European Union, while Israel is the only country in the world not affiliated with any bloc of countries. Equatorial Guinea can proudly point to its membership in a regional bloc. We can't.
So why all the interest? Why does Israel have more foreign correspondents permanently stationed on its soil than any other country with the exception of the great powers? Is it because of our conflict with the Palestinians? The Kashmir imbroglio between India and Pakistan is no less lethal, yet it rates far less coverage.
For a partial answer we have to go to that most unlikely of places, the University of Beijing. There, a Faculty of Peace, Security and International Development was recently unveiled in its School of International Studies. The opening lecture was given not by a Chinese professor but by the remarkable Giancarlo Elia Valori, a prominent Italian academic and personality. He is the president of the Confindustria Lazio, the Chamber of Industries of the Rome region.
Valori is an influential figure on the Italian scene, a major opinion maker with close connections to government ministers and Italy's business elite.
Europe as we know it, Valori declared in his lecture, is a product of the interplay between Catholicism, lay spirit, reform and Hebraism. If you remove Jewish tradition and identity from the equation, "Europe would perish as a geo-cultural model and therefore as a unitarian geo-political identity."
Which is why, for Valori, "the defense of Zionism and the Jewish world coincides with the defense of our Western identity."
There is another side of this European coin. Europe has a bad conscience with regard to the Jewish people. That conscience can be wiped clean if the Jewish state is found to be immoral and guilty of its own brand of persecution of another people.
Israel, therefore, is subjected to a much greater scrutiny than other countries. According to Valori this "means creating again the image of the scapegoat who takes all faults upon himself and wipes out all guilty consciences."
HERE, THEN, is the formula that goes a long way in explaining the inordinate interest of many countries in Israel: the role of the Jews in European identity, contemporary Europe's guilt over the Holocaust and its need to dispense with this guilt by showing that the Jews are just as immoral as the Europeans were.
Beyond all this, this is the land of the Bible, claimed and fought over by two peoples. What a great media spectacle. Drama follows drama in this epic land of ours. No wonder journalists love being stationed here.
There is yet one additional reason for the great interest the world has in the health of Ariel Sharon: We live in a global village. Gone are the days when leaders of the world could say "a plague on both your houses" and walk away from the Israeli-Palestinian strife.
The Kashmir conflict has moved forward dramatically toward a solution in the past year largely because of outside pressure. The same can be said for the Balkans.
Our problem is seen as particularly important because - rightly or wrongly - it is perceived as having repercussions beyond the Holy Land. What happens here is thought - sometimes unfairly, sometimes even maliciously - to affect relations between the West and Islam; to stimulate European anti-Semitism; and is even blamed for world terrorism.
Plainly, the Israel-Palestine conflict is seen as the most intractable local dispute in the world, and he world is evincing increasing impatience, and resolve, to find a solution for it.
To a great extent the interest shown in Sharon's condition is an expression of that impatience as well as that resolve. He has become, in the minds of many people, the Great White Hope for bringing peace to our land; the one leader who could lead the Children of Israel out of the wilderness - of the occupied territories - back into the Promised Land of Israel proper.
Hence the great interest and concern. Ariel Sharon, the person, has fired the imagination as a great leader in a world where great leaders are hard to find. But the primary interest evolves from Sharon being seen as an instrument for bringing peace.
And that is the attitude of most Israelis, too.
The writer is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and heads the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
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