Israel has long been described as the one democracy in the Middle East. It remains that, no matter how critics try to twist policies they do not like into a condemnation of the process that created them.
Now it's also an island of relative calm between two serious wars that have reached within a few kilometers of northern and southern borders, and occasionally spill over either by intention or not.
Syrian chaos began in 2011. Government forces are mixing it up with perhaps 30 organizations of fighters, which also fight among themselves. Pictures of major cities look like Berlin in 1945. Much of the population has been displaced, and deaths have reached the hundreds of thousands. Refugees are straining the economies and threatening the stability of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and making their contribution to the Islamization of Europe. A few missiles have landed in Israel, some of them poorly aimed at combatants operating alongside Israel's border on the Golan. UN troops have proven themselves useless to keep things orderly. The fighting has reached into Israeli politics via the concern of Israel's Druze for their Syrian relatives.
Warfare in Egypt has ratcheted up to serious fighting in the Sinai, close enough to the Israeli border so that the IDF ordered the closure of a road north of Eilat. The principal fighters are Bedouin who are traditionally on the fringes of Egyptian society, supporting themselves by smuggling people, drugs, munitions, and other goodies, now with many of them enthused by Islamic extremism that goes beyond the Muslim Brotherhood and into the realm identified with al Quaida, Daish, and the Islamic State. Experts quarrel if those are integrated organizations that cooperate, or loosely knit opponents to established regimes that aspire to similar or different versions of an Islamic regime. Whether or not public beheadings are appropriate punishments for non-believers is one of the items that may distinguish different theologies or their charismatic leaders.
Important for Israel is not only the closeness of the fighting, reaching daily casualties in the hundreds, but on account of the involvement of Hamas and Gaza. Egypt's border with the Palestinian enclave is more porous than Israel's, and Gaza has served as a base for the Bedouin of Sinai. Fighters move back and forth, and munitions ranging up to anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles may have gotten to Gaza overland from what had been Qaddaffi's supplies in Libya and through tunnels under Gaza's southern border until Egypt worked to close that route. Supplies may also have come from Iran that slipped through Israeli efforts to seize or destroy them at sea or in Sudan. The most recent reports of fighting have counted Afghans along with Palestinians along with the Bedouin.
Egypt's current regime came to power with the army's take over from the elected regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's not too great a violation of language and good sense to describe the al-Sisi government as an enlightened military dictatorship. It is enlightened insofar as its principal adversaries are religious extremists rather than secular democrats concerned with civil liberties. Hamas of Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are close relatives, and the Egyptians currently running things see them both as threats. Egypt has destroyed the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, and razed a swath of housing on the Egyptian side for several kilometers in order to frustrate a renewal of tunnel construction.
One of the things that is not clear is the relationship between Hamas and the organizations within Gaza and the Sinai that are taking on the Egyptian military. Are those fighting the Egyptians more extreme Islamists than Hamas? Are they part of the Gazan opposition to Hamas that occasionally seeks to cause trouble for Hamas by firing rockets into Israel? Do they include Hamas activists who have moved away from the organization's main stream? Or do they reflect a movement of Hamas toward extreme aspirations by figures who see control of the Sinai as a way of attacking Egypt and Israel?
Israeli commentators have begun speaking about the prospect of the Egyptian military moving into Gaza, which may qualify as a game changer if it occurs.
Should that happen, the Gazans may look back on Israeli incursions as slaps on the wrist. Egyptian soldiers are less likely than Israeli to be concerned about the niceties of combat. The destruction of housing on the Egyptian side of the border came with only hours of warning to families, who knows what provision for those forced to evacuate, and nothing like the attention paid by international organizations always at high alert for Israeli missteps. Should Egyptian forces begin to destroy what is left of Gaza's housing and other infrastructure with civilian and other casualties, we can expect more condemnation of Israel for letting the Egyptians do it than of Egyptians for doing it.
Palestinian security forces have increased their activity against Hamas and others even more extreme in the West Bank. Commentators see arrests and early releases as Fatah's pleas that their radical cousins not cause too much trouble with the Israelis.
Ramadan is always a source of tension. Fasting each day from 3 in the morning to 8 at night, especially when the month comes along in the summer, is not a time for calm rationality.
Israel's democracy has managed to muddle along between these two wars, and with the government having a razor-thin majority of one in the Knesset. The gas deal is the ongoing test of the Prime Minister's political skill. So far he has held things together despite the Economic Minister and the Finance Minister wavering in their support of the details. Those two especially sensitive positions have a direct connection with the matter by means of authority to approve a deal and to control various steps in its implementation. They are also held by different parties in the coalition. Each of those ministers had campaigned as champions of the poor or the middle class, and neither seem happy with a deal that populists (some would say demogogues) are describing as benefiting Israeli investors and an American energy company.
It isn't the island paradise that Harry Belafonte sang about, but it's our island. Weather in Jerusalem and the Galilee is arguably better than the Caribbean, except for a few cold and wet weeks in the winter. The coastal plain is good in the winter. Tel Aviv has a world class night life, but is steamy in the summer. Social services and individual opportunities are almost as good as the best, while the IDF and less visible security services have done their part to keep us safe from neighbors that only the nasties of the world should have.