When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, I spent my sick days home from school no different than any other kid my age – watching TV.
This was back in the 1980s, when the daytime broadcast consisted of M*A*S*H, The Dukes of Hazard, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat.
Those were some of the best TV shows of the era, but they would also get boring at some point – reruns and more reruns. Nothing new. Just more of the same old TV.
I’m reminded of those days curled up on the couch in my Chicago den as I think about this region and the various predictions for the coming year.
Will it be a year of breakthroughs on the Palestinian track, or will it be a year of a continued stalemate? What will happen on the northern front? Is the war that everyone has been warning about due to commence? Has Israel crossed the line – as almost happened late Monday night – with its air strikes on Syria?
It is difficult to know on the surface since Israel seems to be caught in a cycle of reruns, in which nothing really changes. Articles published a decade ago by this paper and others about the Hamas threat in the Gaza Strip could be recycled today word for word. All a reporter would have to do is change the names of the relevant players – the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff and the head of Hamas’s military wing.
The same applies to the peace process with the Palestinians. Does anyone even remember George Mitchell and his short stint as US president Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy 10 years ago? There were high hopes at the time that the man who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland would do the same between Israel and the Palestinians. But he didn’t. Is there any real difference between Mitchell and current US negotiators Jason Greenblatt or Jared Kushner? They come from different parties and serve very different presidents, but for the time being, despite different tactics, the show is pretty much the same.
Next week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly and give his annual speech, traditionally timed for the 8 p.m. newscasts.
Will there be a prop or a gimmick like in the past? Probably. And what will Netanyahu’s message be? Will it be like the one he came to the UN with in 2003 – “Israel will not allow a nuclear Iran” ran the next day’s headline in The Jerusalem Post – or will it be based on his 2011 appearance, when he announced vis-à-vis the Palestinians: “I extend my hand in peace”? Both are still as relevant as ever. Just choose your rerun.
The real question is whether Israelis need to live in a rerun-like state, or if there is anything it can do differently to change the current trajectory.
ONE EXAMPLE playing out right now has to do with the Trump peace plan. As our Washington correspondent, Michael Wilner, reported this week, the administration has entered the “pre-launch phase” for its plan, which could – according to senior officials – be rolled out very quickly. But why will this plan succeed when every other one before it has failed?
On the one hand, both Jerusalem and Ramallah will want to be careful not to upset this highly unpredictable president, but on the other hand, the Palestinians seem to not have that much to lose after Washington shut down their embassy, kicked out their ambassador, and cut aid to them and to UNRWA. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens and how this new tactic with the Palestinians – one that hasn’t been used in the past – plays out.
Why, though, is Israel even waiting for another peace plan to be presented by another administration in Washington? This has been the case for decades – Israel waits, the administration presents a plan, and then it fails.
Instead, why doesn’t the government try this novel idea: decide what it wants and then build a plan to achieve that goal. The plan could be anywhere from annexing the West Bank to freezing settlement construction in an effort to restart talks. The answer might be that right now a long-term solution is not possible, and that all Israel can hope for is to manage the conflict until one emerges. If that’s the case, then Netanyahu could tell that to the public. But he doesn’t, and instead prefers ambiguity. If he did reveal a strategy though, Israel would, for once, be deciding what it wants, and not be pushed into a process it doesn’t have real control over.
There is no question that the Trump administration is more attuned to Netanyahu and his policies than any previous White House. But we can’t assume it will be around forever. The upcoming midterm elections could flip the House of Representatives, and who knows what will happen then, coupled with the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. And what will happen in two years, when Trump is up for reelection in 2020? Will he win again, or will the pendulum swing back and see the rise of an extreme Democrat, one with hostile sentiments toward Israel?
The same questions could be asked domestically on matters of religion and state. Will this be the year when Israel breaks free of the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold over military service, marriage, conversion and pluralistic prayer? Or will the country continue to slide farther away from its principles of religious freedom and mandatory civic duty?
Everyone in Israel knows that if it weren’t for the political parties in the Knesset that protect them, haredim no longer have a legitimate excuse for not being drafted into the IDF, like secular and National-Religious Israelis. Personally, I think the government should give up trying to draft haredim and simply integrate them into the workforce. That is what it is really needed to take Israel’s economy forward. But as long as the state wants them in the army, that is the law.
Does that make it right? Of course not. But sadly, nothing is really going to change. Do people even remember the Tal Commission from 20 years ago that was set up for this exact purpose, or the Neeman Commission established the same time to resolve the conversion crisis? Both came and passed and today we watch a rerun as the coalition fights again over these same issues.
The problems then, and the proposed solutions, are almost the same as they are today. But that doesn’t change anything. In this rerun, no government seems eager to rock the boat.
ONCE UPON a time, change was the Israel story. It was a tale of an ancient people that returned to its historic homeland and achieved the impossible. It was a story of ingenuity, creativity and taking the initiative.
“If you will it,” Zionism’s founding father Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “it is no dream.” Herzl wasn’t referring to Jewish reliance on a specific administration, no matter how pro-Israel it might be. And while his Zionist ideals grew out of antisemitism and European hatred for Jews, he understood that the Jewish people needed to be independent, and could not put all of its eggs in one single basket, no matter how comfortable it might be at that given moment.
Israel can still take the initiative. It’s not too late to stop the reruns.
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